Rome, Open City (1945)

For Rome, Open City, Roberto Rossellini took to the streets of the Italian capital just two months after it had been liberated by the Allies to capture the plight of real people living among the ruins. Shot hurriedly using scrabbled together scraps of grainy film stock, some of which had previously contained newsreel footage, and funded by a donation from a wealthy local countess and whatever the director could raise in the city's pawnshops, the result took the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1946 and remains a classic of early neo-realism. It's also an ode to human endurance and a testament to the innate strength of a united community. Rosselini's film, co-written by Sergio Amedei and one Federico Fellini, is more emotionally manipulative and melodramatic than some later examples of the genre and is primarily concerned with the women and children living under German occupation in 1944 and their struggle to protect their Resistance fighter menfolk and keep food on the table. Anna Magnani, one of the few professional performers among the cast, stars as one such everyday heroine, a widow and mother who becomes a martyr when she is gunned down in the road while hysterically attempting to intervene in the arrest of her fiancĂ© by the Gestapo. Magnani gives a magnificent performance that stands as a fitting tribute to the real-life Roman housewife Teresa Gullace on whose tragic fate her strand of the story is based. Maria Michi is also impressive as a night club singer who inadvertently finds herself a collaborator when her simple desire to lead a normal life is cruelly exploited.

The true centre of the storm though is Catholic priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi, also channeling a real person, the partisan sympathiser Don Guiseppe Morosini), who uses his position to move with comparative impunity and offer help and consolation wherever he can. His execution by the sadistic Major Bergman (Harry Feist) in front of a crowd of praying orphans is as brutal a finale as you're likely to encounter in cinema. As for Bergman, if his casual cruelty weren't a damning enough indictment, the criticism he faces from his own subordinate, Captain Hartmann (Joop van Hulzen), who would rather drink himself to death than plant the seeds of hatred, certainly hits home. Rome, Open City was followed by PaisĂ  (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948), making it the starting point for the director's second trilogy of the war, the prolific Rossellini having already completed The White Ship, A Pilot Returns and The Man With The Cross between 1941 and 1943 while deftly managing to dodge conscription with Il Duce's fascists.

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