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Rome, Open City Review

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by Casimir Harlow Mar 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    Rome, Open City Review
    Italy had a somewhat sordid history with Germany during the Second World War. Initially in collusion with the Nazis thanks to Mussolini's overzealous behaviour, a change in spirit only led to them being occupied forcefully rather than allied with them. This de facto occupation during the latter months of the War forced many ordinary civilians to stand up to the Gestapo in order to protect the lives of their own resistance fighters. This movie details the lives of some of the individuals caught up in this conflict, painting its picture on the streets of Rome, deemed an 'Open City' because both sides agreed not to destroy it and so it became safe, or at least safe from bombs. Mainly focusing on the pivotal endeavours of three disparate characters - the strong, forthright woman Pina, the political leader Manfredi and the conflict-ridden Catholic Priest, Don Pellegrini - the movie all-but contemporaneously retells the story of real events on the actual streets of Rome with the help of both famous acting talent and raw street talent.

    You see, it is actually based on true stories about these last few months of the War, its script co-written by the great Italian auteur Fellini and this film's director, Roberto Rossellini. And the result plays as more of a documentary than a movie per se, although some may say that was the whole point. European, and to some extent global cinema history up until this drama emerged was largely governed by commerce - as is the case with most Hollywood productions these days. Back then, however, this largely meant the subject and story of many a production was controlled by 'the powers that be' and that any concept which was deemed too controversial would be binned.

    Thankfully, although some might say we have gone too far, these days pretty-much anything goes. If you can make a film as great and as successful as Team America - deriding so much of what purportedly makes American 'great' and so much of what makes Hollywood movies 'great' then there are no limits left to what we may expose. Provocation and controversy seldom rear their heads in this day and age other than under the rather futile antiquated banner of political correctness. In 1945, so soon after the end of the events that went to comprise this film, Open City's realisation was utterly incomprehensible. How could the very country that underwent such a controversial and painful produce a film so real and reflective of the times? It was unheard of, akin to the movies Schindler's List, or even the abysmal Pearl Harbour being made around the same time.

    Ironically - and perhaps portentously - the very success of this movie not only proved the changing sentiment of that period but also very much fuelled it. This was a break-through in cinema history and it played a big part in the Italian neo realist movement. It went on to become a Cannes Grand Prize Winner in 1946 and is now celebrating its 60th Anniversary. Unfortunately, none of this makes it particularly watchable in this day and age. You see, the very style and innovation of this production - and its much-lauded status amidst today's great cinema directors, not least Martin Scorsese - has only meant that we are now used to similar documentary-style filmmaking presented in a much more viewer-friendly format. Cinema has evolved so much that, to the untrained eye, this is just an overly long piece of newsreel footage that would play on the History or Documentary channel. And once you see a piece of news once, you don't really need to see it again. Many - in particular previous generations - will find an overwhelming air of truth circling the production, and to later generations there are valuable insights and historical lessons to be learned, but beware that it is not a particularly easy piece of viewing material. Given that it is sixty years old, it deserves a certain amount of respect and a certain amount of time, but do expect an utterly no-frills affair.