Wednesday, February 17, 2010

#497: Rome, Open City

(Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

I had seen the first half of Rossellini's masterpiece in Italy while studying abroad (the film is literally divided up, with title cards and everything), and viewing the whole film now was an interesting experience because the first half is so different from the second half. The first is a deeply moving portrait of the struggles of the Italian people under Fascist rule, and it features one of the most famously intense scenes in movie history as one of the characters is gunned down in the street. The second half, on the other hand, becomes a philosophical exploration of the plight of the resistance in Italy, and it features graphic depictions of torture and tragic fates for the characters of the first half. It is clear Army of Shadows took a great deal from this film, even perhaps referencing its opening shot with its own march of Nazi soldiers down the streets of a beloved city, in this case Rome, in that case Paris.

But there is, of course one major difference between the two films. France was being occupied at the time, while Italy was a willing participant in the axis's fight. This is a vital issue that has been largely paved over in Italy's history: while Germany has taken great pains to examine its national identity after the fall of Hitler, Italy continues to live in denial of the crimes it committed in the name of making the trains run on time. A very interesting thing about this film is that it demonstrates how quickly Italy established this national myth. In fact, Rossellini himself made films under the Fascist regime.

Okay, maybe it is more complicated than that. After all, the French had the Vichy government, so they weren't all resisting. And Clouzot, one of my favorite directors ever, made films for the Nazis (although Le Corbeau could certainly be seen as anti-Nazi). There was always a strong resistance in Italy, and in fact the memorable priest character in this film was loosely based on an actual priest that was heavily involved in the anti-fascist movement. But the film takes advantage of this fact (and the natural inclination to set up Nazis as the ultimate evil) in order to create a Rome that is united against the threat from abroad, desperate for America to come rescue them, just as one character turns on the radio to hear the jazz played for the US troops. Because the movie is so good - and this really is a classic - and it's so well-intentioned, particularly for the commonly left-minded film critic, I think the political choices here have largely been overlooked, just as they have in Italy to this day.

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