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Movie Reviews

Open City  

I`ve been lucky to receive, due to the kindness of my local independent video store, access to a number of older foreign films, films I`d never believe I`d see in the tiny province of Prince Edward Island. Open City is my most recent acquisition, and it is interesting, if not always my cup of tea.

The film, directed by Roberto Rosselini and starring Anna Magaini was made in 1945 just after the end of World War II. The story depicts a situation in Italy during the Nazi occupation, as a couple of members of a secret underground movement attempt to keep the Nazis away from them. This movement seems to be a response to the Italian`s poverty, the result of the expense of the war, and other Nazi policies; there is a scene where the locals break into a bakery and steal all the bread. One of the members of the group is engaged to Magaini`s character, and the wedding is about to take place in a matter of days. But all sorts of problems ensue, and all of this rrevolves around the fear that the Nazis will finally catch up with these traitors to the Nazi will. And the second and more effective portion of the film is an astounding display of tragic melodrama.

There is one major problem, and that has to do with the print I viewed. The subtitling, obviously the original 1945 work, is appalling. Numerous chunks of sentences and paragraphs are untranslated, making the film very confusing. It is really weird for a viewer to sit there and see a bunch of people speaking a language we can`t speak, and wonder if perhaps we are missing something by not knowing what is being said. Despite the subtitling problem, I still enjoyed the last portion of the film, in which the melodrama kicks into high gear. The movie is shameless in making things unbearable for our characters, and the purpose is to show us how evil the Nazi occupation really was; that it resulted in otherwise good people getting caught in betrayal, greed, and, soon, the clutches of sorrow and death.

About those evil Nazis -- apparently there is a lot of repressed lesbianism in their ranks, or perhaps it`s just me! I am talking about a curious moment when Magaini`s sister, after having informed a female Nazi on the whereabouts of the men in the film, is, in my view, being seduced by that same woman. I suppose Rosolini saw "depraved" sexuality as another aspect of how depraved the Nazis were.

Religion is nudged a bit here as well, as a character of the priest is forced to come to grips with the possibility that the Nazis simply are evil, and can`t be fought using tradition. Earlier, he tells Magaini that perhaps the occupation is a punishment of sorts for the sins of Rome (a similar speech involving the idea that misery is brought on by ourselves is used in A Price Above Rubies). At the same time, the priest has taken confession, in which secrets that the Nazis desire was spoken, so of course, this means the priest will never speak. But later on, the priest discovers to his horror what following the rules of the confessional will wrought.

At the time, this film was seen as very realistic - part of the Italian neorealism movement, in fact, which included films such as The Bicycle Thief. Open City is a lot different from the Hollywood pictures of the 1930`s and 40`s, in that there are not a lot of big stars, but it really is not much more realistic than, say, The Grapes of Wrath, which also told a dark story about real people in a harsh situation. I think that much of the appeal of neo-realism was that, instead of using the standard trappings of filmmaking, they used a few unusual elements. For one, many of these films used non-actors in a number of supporting roles. As well, the films took advantage of the current situation in Italy; both of these stories were shot in post-war Italy, thereby placing a topicality and urgency to the content. Yet to say that these films were hard-bitten in their realism is to speak falsely. Open City is definitely a melodrama, and to a lesser extent, so is The Bicycle Thief. To go back to the John Ford example, The Grapes of Wrath, made five or six years earlier, did not feel very much like a melodrama. Poverty was depicted just as well here as it was in The Bicycle Thief, and, overall, the movie did not attempt to jerk too many emotions from us. It was a purely straightforward picture. Open City definitely does not top John Ford`s classic.

Open City is still interesting in many ways; for depicting a situation which at the time happened not too long before, during the Nazi occupation, and for the effective melodrama. These facts ensure that Rosselini`s groundbreaking film will remain important, if not always perfect.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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