Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rome, Open City

Before there was nouvelle vouge, independent cinema and Dogme 95 there was neorealism. Before Pasolini, Pontecorvo, Costa Gravas, there was Rosselini. Before Harvey Kietel there was Marcello Pagliero. And long before ‘The Battle of Algiers’ took us deep into the dark beating heart of guerilla warfare, there was a film that not only captured the same spirit, but also combined it with the humanity and tenderness of ‘Casablanca’. That film was Rome, Open City’.

Filmed by Rosselini on the devastated streets of Rome, weeks after the Allies had liberated the city, the film serves both as historical document and history lesson. Countless World War movies have arrived since, and modern audiences may be left wondering what all the fuss is about. But as with any enduring work of art, one eventually starts to see past the outer form and down to the ideas at its core. Once that happens, it becomes easier to appreciate the risks which Rosselini takes. He abruptly kills off his heroine, the legendary Anna Magnani, half-way through the film. He creates what appears to be closet-lesbian subplot involving a stunning Italian informer and a German officer. Children throw bombs. Old men get hit with frying pans. Heroes die, insisting that they are not heroes at all.

One scene in particular haunts me. The children start whistling a Resistance tune as the priest, played by a stoic Aldo Fabrizzi, is strapped to a chair in front of the firing squad. Is the firing squad too scared to hit him the first time around, or is there a deeper meaning behind the bullets missing him? Rosselini plants the thought, but gives us no time to think about it. The bullet in his head is delivered by a German officer who was earlier shown drunkenly questioning the sanctity of the idea of a master race. Just like the film stock used - black, white and a little grey...

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