Sunday, March 8, 2015

Roberto Rossellini | Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City)

a morality play
by Douglas Messerli

Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini (screenplay, based on a story by Amidei and Albert Consiglio),
Roberto Rossellini (director) Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City) / 1945

At an early point in Robert Rossellini’s memorable film Open City, one character asks another whether or not the Americans really exist; he looks up to a ruined building, and comments something to the effect of “Yes, they exist.” By 1944, the year in which the events of the film presumably take place, Italy was already a defeated nation, Mussolini having been toppled. A civil war between the Nazi controlled northern provinces of the country, and the southern provinces controlled by the monarchist and liberal forces with soldiers fighting with the Italian Co-Belligerent Army was being waged. Declared an “open” city, Rome was anything but safe for Resistance and Communist fighters such as Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) and the underground printer Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet). Ruled by the Italian puppet government controlled by the Nazis, the citizens of the Holy City were exhausted through deprivation and near-starvation. The long year ahead until War’s end seemed like a decade. And the Americans, even those stationed in the south, seemed far in the far distance.

     Rossellini’s film, shot in 1945 on the still derelict streets of the city and in actual apartments, is represented today as the central film in Italian Neorealism, combining an often documentary-like style with the grainy effects of live filmmaking, made necessary by the wartime conditions, the lack of high quality equipment and materials, and absence of good lighting. Yet, on reflection, we can easily perceive that Open City—as freshly improvisational as it feels—was more often carefully staged, melodramatically composed, and highly scripted by Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini (based a story Amidei and Alberto Consiglio). Some of the melodrama of script and stock character types, the often mincingly effeminate behavior of the Nazi Gestapo leader, Major Bergmann (Harry Feist) and the menacingly lesbian titillations of his cohort Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), as well as the hackneyed declarations of the Nazis as in the following scene—

                   Major Bergman: I've a man who must talk before dawn and
                                                 a priest who is praying for him. He'll talk. 
                   Hartman: And if not? 
                   Major Bergman: Ridiculous. 
                   Hartman: And if not? 
                   Major Bergman: Then it would mean an Italian is worth as
                                                much as a German. It would mean there is
                                                no difference in the blood of a slave race
                                                and a master race. And no reason for this war.—

may seem to not only weaken the story, but to detract from its presentation of a spontaneous reality. Similarly, the pious religiosities spouted by the Resistance-supporting priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi) seem out of sync, and further contribute to the sense of this work as being just short of a dialectical propaganda piece. If this is a “new” realism, it certainly relies heavily on the old-fashioned dramatic conventions of pre-War Italian film and theater. 
     But, in fact, it is just these conventions that help to make it so effective. And we don’t feel cheated in gradually coming to recognized that Open City represents a version of reality that might never have been discovered on the mean streets of Rome. 
    The most important scenes in the film, in fact, depend upon spectacular gestures of passion rather than accidental documentation of real events. Pina’s sudden decision to chase after the Nazi jeep into which Francesco—the man whom she was to have married that same morning, has been taken under arrestment—is almost explicable as a rational act, but utterly representative of the boiling over of emotions of love, desire, desperation, and, perhaps most importantly, hate that her chase signifies—actions which can only be dealt with from the would-be-conquerer’s point of view death. And her emotionally moving fall to the street is explicitly symbolized in its image of the pieta and a holy death.

     The almost impossible-to-bear scene in which Don Pietro is forced to watch the torture of Manfredi, who beaten, whipped, and torched, is visually represented as the scourged and tortured Christ, again reiterates the incredible hate the Nazis have crafted, described by Hartman in his drunken conversation with Bergmann.

     Rossellini and his cinematographer express this impulsive horror once again in the final shooting of Don Pietro, where the priest, observed this time by the children—the future generation of witnesses—is shot, strapped into a stool, in the back.

     In short, the central scenes of Rossellini’s film are about as far from naturalistic as one might get. These and others through the work serve more as emblems of iconic meaning rather than as a documentation of everyday events.

    Often even the ordinary street scenes, such as the attack on the local bakery by starved mothers and children, are played for comic relief when the sexton, Agostino (Nando Bruno) suddenly determines to get his share of the daily bread which has so long been denied the citizens of the city. 
    If the street scenes shot through windows often seem compelling real, we only have to observe how the director uses his camera, winding down from the heights in the circular patterns of staircases, or zooming from high to low position in order to get a better look at what is transpiring below.
    In short, throughout Open City, Rossellini is more interested in the theater of his tale and the passion it evokes than in glimpsing the reality of everyday life in the war-weary city. But rather than seeing such mini passion plays as failures in an otherwise convincing documentation, I would argue that what appears as documentation serves simply as filler for the emotionally appealing and moving interchange throughout of good and evil. The realistic scenes of the film serve less as substance than as links that cement the morality play that Open City truly is.

    Today, perhaps, many of us find it more difficult to appreciate such grand theatrics—unless we staunchly assert that the film mimics truth—but the audiences of 1945 were not yet fully imbued with the anxieties of post-War audiences. Truth was still—which is why, in part that this work is so brilliant—a dramatic convention. Even though the Americans did finally show up, their demand for the “real” had not yet truly infected the Italian arts. Someday, in fact, even we will realize that the “real” is what one makes it.

Los Angeles, March 8, 2015

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