Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rome, Open City

I am very pleased to see Rome, Open City show up again on the TCM schedule tonight at midnight ET (ie. this evening at 9:00 PM out on the west coast). If you haven't seen it before, don't miss this chance! It really is that worth watching.

The scene is Rome around late 1943 or early 1944. The Allies have already started the invasion of Italy, but the Nazis are still in control of Rome, or at least the parts of Rome that we get to see. As with any place that the Nazis occupied, there is also an underground resistance fighting the Nazis with whatever means they have, which just as often means using the printing press to produce anti-Nazi newspapers or small acts of resistance. Leading the bit of the resistance that we see is Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero). He's apparently a pretty high-up person in the resistance, because at the start of the movie, the Nazis knock on the door of the apartment where he's currently staying with two little old ladies, who of course claim to know nothing about him. Anyhow, Manfredi is forced to flee across rooftops, and eventually shows up at the apartment of Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), another resistance member living in a decrepit apartment building next to Pina (Anna Magnani), a war widow with a child, in whom Francesco takes an interest.

Also taking an interest in the children is the Catholic Church, which was still a fairly strong institution in Italy in those days. The Church is represented here by Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), whose church presumably runs the local Catholic school, although that's never really shown, except that the kids are around all the time, or at least whenever it's necessary for the plot. When the plot requires them to be elsewhere, who cares whether they're in school? But, Don Pietro is also a member of the resistance. The Catholic Church had a difficult relationship with the Italian Fascists and the Nazis. Even if they had been 100% opposed to the ideology, they were still surrounded. The Vatican's status as we know it today was finalized by the Lateran Treaty of 1929, but the Vatican is a tiny enclave within Italy, and the Italian's could easily have made life a nightmare for the Church. (I presume they also saw the example of what the Soviet Union and Communism did to religion; certainly the post-war clergy did.) At any rate, who would suspect this portly, charming little priest of being a member of the resistance? Not only that, but the kids favored fighting against the Nazis if they could. They saw the daily deprivations the adults were facing, and with the impetuosity of children, decided to fight the only way they knew how.

Of course, being in the resistance is dangerous. We already see this at the beginning of the movie when Manfredi is forced to flee for his life, but we see it in all sorts of other ways, such as when the Nazis have no compunction about forcing everybody out of a building in a search for one person, or in trying to buy information, as from Marina (Maria Michi), the nightclub singer with whom Manfredi is in love. She eventually does let the Nazis know Manfredi's whereabouts, with tragic consequences for all....

Rome, Open City was made by director Roberto Rossellini in 1945, at a time when filming a movie was extremely difficult. Film stock was not easily obtainable, and it's not as if you could get studio time. Everything was done on location, with a bunch of non-professionals playing most of the roles. This leads to some problems in that the acting or lighting might not be as polished as Hollywood or even British movies from the same time, but it also led to the Italian genre of neo-realism, for which we should be eternally grateful. What neo-realist movies lack in polish or acting, they more than make up for in a vibrant immediacy. The poverty on display here is nothing like the sanitized version you'd get in the tenements of Hollywood movies, not even movies that were deliberately trying to make a social point such as Dead End.

Rome, Open City was the first of three movies Rossellini made about the war that are often considered his war trilogy. It's gotten a DVD release -- or, should I say, the entire war trilogy has received a release as part of a box set. Unfortunately, the set is a bit pricey.

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