Saturday, July 15, 2006

OPEN CITY (1945)

This film by Roberto Rossellini is perhaps the earliest example of Neorealism in film, using a documentary style to tell a fictional story, often about ordinary citizens and sometimes using non-professional actors. Filmed on the streets of Rome not long after the liberation of the city from the Germans, the narrative follows a loosely-knit group of resistance fighters during the height of the war. The stage is set with images of starving people buying food on the black market and breaking into shops. The main character is engineer Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), who is being chased down by Nazis; he leaves his apartment building and goes to his friend Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), who lives next door to his finacee Pina (Anna Magnani), a war widow with one child and another on the way. She fetches the priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who agrees to help Manfredi smuggle money to other resistance fighters. Unfortunately, Manfredi also contacts his lover, Marina (Maria Michi), an aspiring actress (who is also, if I'm reading things correctly, a bisexual and a dope addict) who later, in a fit of anger, informs on Manfredi to icy blond Nazi Ingrid (Giovanna Galetti). On the day of his wedding, Francesco is rounded up by the Gestapo. He eventually escapes, but not before Pina is shot and killed running after him.

Manfredi is captured and tortured by the cruel (and somewhat femme) Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), and it turns out that Manfredi has a secret past: he was an escaped Communist prisoner who had been hiding in plain sight for years. Bergmann is especially anxious to make Manfredi talk because his theory is that the Italians are a slave race and therefore their will should be easy to break, but Manfredi, as most of the captured patriots, is not so easy to crack. A more interesting bad guy is Captain Hartmann (Joop van Hulzen), a self-hating Nazi who thinks that the Germans are sowing death and hatred, and holds out no hope for a bright future for anyone. As you can probably tell, it's not a spoiler to say that almost all the major resistance fighters meet unhappy ends, although the last shot of the film can be interpreted as a hopeful one: a group of children we have seen pulling off minor resistance vandalism throughout the film witness the death of the priest by firing squad, and they walk away, not in resignation but in what seems more like dogged determination to continue their efforts. The acting all around, by pros and amateurs, is solid, with Magnani and Fabrizi standouts. The "realistic" filming style adds immeasurably to the gritty atmosphere of the film, though that style is much more common now. The version I saw on cable clearly wasn't "restored," and there were large chunks of dialogue that went untranslated. This film cries out for a fully loaded Criterion edition. (Sundance)

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