Reassessing Rossellini: restoration of Rome Open City, the director's masterpiece, prompts a look at why he later retreated from the neorealism it introduced.

Author:Luzzi, Joseph
Position:Movies - Critical essay
 
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My history of Italian cinema begins with gunfire.

Allied forces land in Sicily in July 1943 and surge north, liberating one section of the Italian peninsula after another; the Gestapo realizes that it is breathing its last and increases the cruelty of its persecutions in proportion to the futility of its cause. Rome, ancient mater of the West, home first to Caesar's secular empire and then the Christian Church, is about to be declared an "open city," a military free-for-all available to the strongest party, nation, or political group. Just months after American and Allied troops seize control of Rome in June 1944, Roberto Rossellini begins work on Rome Open City, a film that mixes fact and fiction in narrating the struggles of four Roman partisans prior to the liberation. Political tribulations and economic deprivations compel the 38-year-old Rossellini, son of the builder of Rome's first movie theater, to make do with the limited resources at hand: poor film stock, nonprofessional actors, and unadorned sets of city streets under natural light. The film is set in the first half of 1944: the Roman people endure Nazi occupation while much of the nation undergoes civil war as Italian Resistance fighters struggle against the Fascists. By the time the film is released, however, the partigiani (partisans) have already captured Benito Mussolini and hanged his executed body upside down in Milan's Piazzale Loreto.

Rome Open City (1945) is the first and best-known film in the War Trilogy that made Rossellini famous, and its recent release on DVD by the Criterion Collection will change the way we view it. In addition to removing dirt, debris, scratches, and the like, Criterions version also smoothes out the rough visual transitions between the scavenged and mismatched film stocks the director used to make the film. Watching it is like viewing the restored Sistine Chapel: the "new" work is not more or less beautiful, but it is different-sharper and clearer, certainly, if less romantic. The first time I studied the film closely, the effect was so powerful that I decided to devote much of my subsequent career to Italian cinema; the restoration returns that thrill of starting over.

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Rossellini's protagonists are the intellectual engineer Manfredi, the working-class printer Francesco and his pregnant fiancee Pina, and the local priest Don Pietro. In the comic, often slapstick atmosphere of the first half of the film, the Roman genius for arrangiarsi (getting by) outfoxes even the deadly bureaucracy of the Nazi occupiers. However grim the situation, the Romans manage to enjoy life. Scenes of family high jinks abound, including frantic dinner-table discussions laced with double-entendre. Don Pietro even finds time to play soccer with his young flock.

.......... EVERYTHING CHANGES after the gunfire-from the momentum of the film to the history of Italian cinema and, by extension, Italy's public memory of the war. The Gestapo raids...

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