Sunday 13 January 2013

Surviving empire's wars

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Reviews of Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta) tend to start with the circumstances of the film's creation. I won't break with that tradition, for rarely is a film so clearly and intentionally a reflection of its own making. Roberto Rosselini experienced the fear, frustration and desperate hope of life in Rome before liberation himself. For that reason the film, shot while the frontline was just a few hundred kilometres north of Rome and released in 1945 some fifteen months after the Allied capture of the city, provides a startlingly immediate look at life under Nazi occupation.

Conceived by Rossellini with co-writers Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei during the months of occupation in 1944, Rome, Open City is a feature-length amalgamation of what was originally to be two documentaries: one on Roman children sabotaging the German forces, another on a Catholic priest executed for aiding the resistance. The seams definitely show: it is, indeed, a bit of a rickety creation, plagued by uncertain financing and the lack of decent working studios, processing facilities or, well, anything.

Against the odds, though, Rome, Open City emerged as a work of genius, and the first great success of Italian neo-realism: though 'success' means foreign critics, really, as Italian audiences were not particularly receptive to a recreation of horrors they had experienced barely a year previously. Which I get: if you're struggling every day to find enough food and fuel to keep you going, a film that opens and ends on a tracking shot of your wartorn capital probably won't be your idea of escapist entertainment.

In the winter of 1943-44, resistance officer Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) narrowly escapes capture by the Gestapo and goes to hide out at the flat of his friend Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), a communist engaged to a widow, Pina (Anna Magnani), who is first seen orchestrating the looting of a bakery. Meanwhile the parish priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), works for the resistance by passing messages and money. But the local Gestapo commander, SS Sturmbannführer Bergmann (Harry Feist), is on their trail with the help of his Fascist counterpart, the police president of Rome (Carlo Sindici).

Now, about those seams: the script's looseness is generally a strength, but at times plot holes open. It's certainly the case that a band of Don Pietro's students, led by Pina's son Marcello and his friend Romoletto (I've not been able to ascertain the actors' names, so please do comment if you know them), are in there somewhere committing acts of petty sabotage against the Germans. But Romoletto's outsized heroism is shown as foolish in a scene in which Don Pietro has to take a makeshift bomb from him, and the boys disappear from the film at the half-way mark only to reappear right at the end. It is quite generally a film in which characters seem to appear and drop off the face of the earth with little rhyme or reason: Francesco, too, vanishes at a certain point, after which the focus narrows to Don Pietro, Manfredi, and their Axis pursuers.

What's more, Rome, Open City was shot silent, presumably for lack of sound stages, and sound dubbed in later. This is effective, with the possible exception only of some of the voice acting. Praise where it is due, though: many of the actors dubbing the Germans' lines are clearly native speakers (Joop van Hulzen speaks perfect German, like most Dutchmen seem to), and the German dialogue is generally not only flawless but pleasingly idiomatic (if you can bear the horrid military-inflected jargon the Nazis created, that is). There's one glaring exception, though: for unless Austrian-born Harry Feist grew up in some seriously weird linguistic enclave, his dialogue was overdubbed by a non-native speaker - who, to add insult to injury, was asked to intone minor errors like intransitive 'fortzusetzen' ('fortzufahren' would be correct). Ah, but I'm nitpicking.

Despite being largely a chamber piece, Rome, Open City contains impressive shots: one, of Pina running after a German truck, is rightly famous. Even so, the look of the film is - well, not slapdash, but it certainly looks like several kinds of film stock were used, that being pretty low on everyone's list of priorities at the time. Surprisingly, though, most of the variety in the film's aesthetic (which one imagines caused cinematographer Ubaldo Arata no shortness of headache) is caused not by stock but by inconsistent and difficult post-processing. Suffice it to say that more than once in the course of 102 minutes, it suddenly feels like we've stepped into a different film.

Those open seams might be considered flaws, but their effect is the opposite: they make the film feel fresh, startling and immediate even after decades. And that certainly contributes to the feeling of realism - which should not be misunderstood: much of Rome, Open City is thoroughly melodramatic, full of fiendish stereotypical villains (dancers sleeping with German officers for money and comforts, evil lesbians, camp SS commanders) and pure-hearted heroes (a hard-working widow, a fussy yet selfless priest). But there is as much surprising nuance as there is cliché: the atheist who prefers being married by a priest to having to step in front of Fascist officials, say, or the timid Austrian deserter (Ákos Tolnay).

More importantly, though, the realism of Rome, Open City lies in its unvarnished examination of a people under occupation. Not without humour, of course: I've come to accept that, in the same way every Bollywood film seems to have song-and-dance numbers irrespective of the subject matter, every Italian film of the first three post-war decades will contain silly humour, although what is offered here is grimmer than usual (Bergmann's conversations being disturbed by the screams of tortured men, for example). Realism, I said: Rossellini deals frankly with hunger and ration books, as well as controversial social issues like pregnancy outside wedlock, which British films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning would not get around to doing for another fifteen years - contemporary social dramas like The Stars Look Down (1940) still have considerably stuffier morals.

Above all, though, the film tastes of fear: fear of speaking over the phone lest the secret police listen in, fear of being caught outside after curfew. And, everpresent, fear of being dragged out and roughly handled when the occupier chooses to raid your house. I'd say I don't want to preach at y'all, but that's precisely what I'm going to do: the picture Rossellini paints of life under foreign occupation is startlingly similar to the war in Iraq, complete with civilians murdered during house raids. The German regime in Italy is portrayed not so much as fascist as simply technocratic: it serves no end except to perpetuate itself. And barely even that: for as Bergmann cheerfully acknowledges, the Nazis will have to withdraw from Rome sooner or later.

Not that, in foregrounding counter-insurgency, Rossellini neglects the role Italian Fascist collaborators play in enabling Nazi rule. Indeed, the film appears downright prescient when Bergmann prophesies trouble after an Allied victory: for considering the 1948 election, the Years of Lead and Operation Gladio, what European country besides Greece had such a fractious, violent postwar history as Italy? When challenged as to why he's working with atheists, Don Pietro says: 'I believe that anyone who fights for justice and freedom walks in the ways of the Lord.' For a film so invested in the grubby details of ordinary life, Rome, Open City relies on religious imagery to an extraordinary degree. Unless, perhaps, the greatest sacred value lies in thoroughly earthly acts of earthly kindness. That is at the heart of Don Pietro's character - and at the centre of the film.

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