Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Roma, città aperta

1945, Italy, directed by Roberto Rossellini (Rome Open City)
Heralded as the beginning of the neo-realist movement, Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta doesn't conform to some of the key expectations that would come to be associated with later films, most notably in its reliance on professional actors as well as many of the conventions of melodrama, while much of the film is shot on studio sets, however makeshift the studio may have been in the Rome of early 1945. The circumstances of the film's shooting weren't quite as hand-to-mouth as later legend would have it, particularly with regard to the film stock (there were just three kinds of stock, and they were consistently used for interiors or exteriors, as documented, among other places, in David Forgacs's study of the film), while Rossellini was an experienced professional with several fascist-era features under his belt, something that was less than politically expedient (for him and for many critics) in the immediate aftermath of the war.

What is remarkable about the film, even now, though, is the simple fact that it was made literally within months of the kinds of events it depicts (some anchored firmly in actual incidents, an idea that Rossellini further developed in his next film, Paisà), and under extraordinarily disrupted circumstances; it's both an accomplished, sometimes manipulative bit of filmmaking and one that literally reeks of its time and place (the choppy film processing contributes greatly to the sense of a film made on the fly and in locations similar to those being depicted onscreen). The documentary air of those street-level scenes are married with passages that evoke the more regular production of the Italian (and American) studios of the time, with comic local colour bits that make great use of the talents of performers like Aldo Fabrizi (as a priest involved with the resistance), though the comedy turns sour very quickly and definitively during a search that rousts several resistants.

Rossellini's portrait of the Nazis owes much to what were already quite conventional representations: while the Italian fascist officials (petty and otherwise) are often bumbling and warm-hearted, the German characters are coldly efficient, capable of drinking and amusing themselves mere feet from a chillingly-depicted torture chamber (the Gestapo chief and his female colleague are a sadistic and callous homosexual/lesbian pair, hardly the stuff of realistic portrayals).

Throughout the film, children listen in to adult conversations and observe adult situations, growing up quickly (they both play at and live through the war), learning brutal lessons that, at the conclusion of the film, are nonetheless leavened with a certain degree of hope, a hope partly created by the audience's awareness of the subsequent course of events; it's a theme that recurs throughout Rossellini's next two films, though in more challenging terms.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States