I get conflicting messages on Rossellini: either he can do no wrong or he did only wrong, either his early stuff was groundbreaking then he dried up or he did his best work late in his career, either he told the ultimate truths in cinema or he was a deceitful opportunist. Fortunately, the exhaustive Criterion box of his early “war trilogy” went on sale, so now I shall see for myself. I watched Germany Year Zero on Turner Classic a decade ago, and it stands out as one of the most affecting (depressing) movies I have ever seen, so I’m inclined to think I’ll like the trilogy – and so far, so good.
Not an incredibly “neorealistic” movie – as the DVD commentary ceaselessly points out, it’s “far closer to the traditional melodrama or suspense film than to any realistic documentary.” But RR shot (partially) on the streets and at real locations, with (some) non-actors, using borrowed and stolen film stock for a (somewhat) newsreel-like texture, and so a movement was born. Visconti’s Ossessione was shot earlier, but wasn’t distributed outside Italy and its story didn’t have Open City’s sense of post-war rebirth.
Pina (the great Anna Magnani of The Golden Coach) is to marry Francesco. After F’s friend Manfredi goes on the run, the resistance descends on Pina’s apartment. The sympathetic, somewhat comic priest who is to marry her, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi, later in Flowers of St. Francis) volunteers to help. But the nazis are hot on Manfredi’s trail, with help from his poorly-chosen girlfriend, a drug-addicted dancer named Marina who betrays him. They round up Francesco before his wedding, leading to the famous scene where Magnani is gunned down chasing after the truck that holds him.
I’ve seen that scene a bunch of times out of context, never realized it’s not the end of the movie, just of the first half. In the second half, Francesco is immediately freed from the prison truck by resistance fighters (making his fiancee’s death that much more pointless, as the commentary points out), but in a subsequent raid the priest and Manfredi are arrested, along with an Austrian deserter who Don Pietro was helping. There’s some scripty business among the nazis to point out the general weakness of their cause. After the deserter kills himself in his cell and Manfredi dies under torture, having never revealed the resistance secrets, Don Pietro is shot in front of the children he used to play with, little resistance fighters themselves, who will survive the nazi occupation that had just barely ended when this movie went into production.
When the movie’s lead nazis invite the weak, drugged-up Marina to their palace, show off her tortured-to-death boyfriend then steal back the fur coat they’d given for her cooperation, I realized the nazis’ names are Ingrid and Bergman – crazy, since a few years later Rossellini would fall for Ingrid Bergman. Bergman (stage actor Harry Feist) is effeminate and Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti, later in Last Tango in Paris) is butch, lounging on a sofa with Marina in a sinful opium haze, say the commentary, “underline how closely audiences of Rossellini’s time associated sexual deviancy with evildoing.”
Written with veteran screenwriter Sergio Amidei and young Federico Fellini, this wasn’t Rossellini’s first movie, just the earliest one that anyone pays attention to. Earlier he’d worked directly with Vittorio Mussolini, son of the country’s dictator, who describes Rossellini in the DVD extras (he lived through the 1990’s) as neither fascist nor anti-fascist at the time, just an energetic filmmaker.
The commentary by Peter Bondanella spends much of its time explaining why the movie shouldn’t count as “realism” at all, and does not make a sharp break with fascist cinema styles. But while downplaying the movie’s groundbreaking status, he also praises its story and technique endlessly:
“Much of the dramatic force of Open City resides in the lessons of humanity the main characters learn from each other. As Manfredi the Marxist revolutionary discovers, a priest is not so different from a worker, or even a partisan leader. In Open City we are asked to examine the common humanity that always transcends idiological or confessional labels.”
RR: “I’ve always advocated finding this ease of expression and demythologizing the camera and filmmaking, tackling it in a much simpler way, without worrying too much about perfect shots and images. The important thing was to get your point across.”
Hmm, neorealism was said to be a “reaction to the films of the Fascist era dominated by ‘white telephone’ films, which depicted ladies of leisure lounging on satin sofas, telephoning their lovers.” But isn’t that a precise description of Cocteau’s Human Voice, filmed by Rossellini four years later?
Francois Truffaut: “Rohmer once said that Rossellini’s genius lay in his lack of imagination, and it’s true. He didn’t like fabrication or artifice, or flashbacks or any kind of clever trick. He left behind the personal and specific to move ever toward the general. His first postwar film is Rome Open City, about a city. The next is Paisan – six stories about Italy from south to north. After that comes Germany Year Zero and then Europa 51 – at that point he needed an entire continent. … He was a very intelligent man. I’m not saying filmmaking is for idiots, but fiction requires a certain naivete that he didn’t have, so he worked with larger concepts.”