Sunday, September 26, 2021

Any film fan needs to take a tour of Rome Open City


The wounds of World War II are clearly still fresh as Rome Open City. Shot in Rome, Italy shortly after the conclusion of this global conflict, Rome Open City isn't so much a film chronicling the distant past as it is just recounting recent memories for its participating artists. This lends an immediately vivid quality to what we're watching. All those lived-in experiences give director Roberto Rossellini a rich emotional core to draw from. Everyone involved is aware of the human cost of this war, the lives lost, the families torn apart, the psyches shattered. All of those consequences are made hauntingly apparent here in a truly incredible piece of filmmaking.

What's especially impressive about Rome Open City is it chronicles an important era of history with characters who are intentionally unimportant. The fictional figures at the forefront of the story are not the figures of the past who get statues erected in their honor or become the subject of songs chanted on the battlefield. Much like A Hidden Life, Rome Open City is about the everyday human beings for whom survival and holding onto one's ideals are enough of a goal to cling to every day. Much like the authentic emotions of the plot, the intimate scope of the proceedings are instantly compelling and make the stakes of this plot tangible to any viewer from anywhere on the planet. 

The screenplay, credited to Rossellini as well as Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, and Alberto Consiglio, creates such engaging characters out of this restrictive setting. Especially fascinating is the closest thing we have to a traditional protagonist here, Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), a guy who starts out the story slightly detached from the larger conflict before becoming one of the two survive male characters extensively tortured by the Nazi antagonists. Here we have a prime example of the sort of ordinary humans that can make a difference simply by refusing to be consumed by the cruelty surrounding them from every angle. It's a commanding core detail for a character made all the more fascinating by Fabrizi's performance.

These qualities are filtered through Rossellini's impeccable style of filmmaking, which is especially great at utilizing depth of field. Shots like the image of Nazi soldiers marching up an endless series of staircases vividly convey the sense of danger that threatens Pellegrini and his adolescent companion in a stressful moment. Meanwhile, Rossellini's decision to keep the torture of one of our lead characters entirely off-screen for the finale proves a wise decision that still gets across the viciousness of these Nazis without lingering on the anguish of a tormented fighter against oppression. Rossellini's camera never carries an exploitative quality in capture the carnage of history.

Rome Open City is also littered with all kinds of small details, like the easygoing rapport between the kid characters, that suggest vast lives for these characters beyond their place in the revolution against Nazi forces. Being made so close to the Nazi occupation of Italy doesn't just mean Rome Open City feels ripped from the headline, it also means Rossellini and company are well aware that this isn't the norm. The citizens of this city were once not solely defined by the actions of hideous Nazis. Being conscious of this informs the rich humanity of the everyday people Rome Open City depicts with such success that it still captivates all these years later.

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