Thursday, September 17, 2009
Review – Open City
September 18, 2009
Open City – Italy, 1945
Roberto Rossellini’s Open City begins with what I believe is an intentionally misleading scene. In it, a troop of German soldiers march in perfect formation while singing joyously in perfect pitch. The streets around them are clean and empty, and we get the sense that this is a peaceful city. A film that begins like this usually then cuts to a scene of the troops in their barracks. The troops are usually revealed to be jovial individuals, and soon the film focuses on one of them, a generally good man who may have family responsibilities or shyness issues. Open City is not one of these films. The film quickly cuts to another group of soldiers arriving outside an apartment. These soldiers are not singing, and judging from their demeanor, they are also not going to be polite. Their arrival is witnessed by a man named Giorgio Manfriedi (Marcello Pagliero), who immediately flees out a window. Later, we see the condition that a captured professor is in after being “asked a few questions” and understand why Manfriedi flees as fast as he does.
Open City takes places in Nazi-occupied Rome during World War II. The residents of Rome are tired of war and the hardships it has caused them. Towards the beginning of the film, there is a riot at a bakery that was apparently hoarding food. There’s reference to it being the second such incident recently. One woman taking advantage of the day’s “celebration” is Pina (Anna Magnani), a widow pregnant with her second child and engaged to a man named Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet). Francesco, it turns out, is good friends with Manfriedi, and it is he whom Manfriedi turns to for help. Manfriedi needs two things: to get out of the city and for a message to be delivered. To accomplish these tasks, he turns to Father Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), who in addition to being willing to risk his life for liberation also knows how to obtain fake passports.
Given this context, Open City could be viewed as a race against time. As plans for Manfriedi’s escape are put into motion, German military officials get closer and closer to determining his identity and physical location. They are aided in this by Manfriedi’s girlfriend Marina (Maria Michi), a woman who places too much value in material possessions and social status and who is not above using her beauty and sexuality to achieve her goals. One need only compare her apartment with Pina’s to see how successful Marina has been in achieving her goals. Marina’s apartment is spacious, and her closets and drawers are filled with beautiful clothing and exquisite jewelry, all things that she admits she cannot afford on her salary alone. In contrast, Pina shares a small apartment with her parents, her grandparents, her sister, and her son, and the cramped space ignites unnecessary arguments. Marina cannot resist the offers of fur coats and jewelry in exchange for information about Manfriedi. Marina is also rather naïve when it comes to the German officers, for she allows herself to believe their soft words of assurance: that Manfriedi is just wanted for routine questioning and that he will be released unhurt in a short amount of time.
Open City is probably best known for its final act, which is hard to watch. However, what sticks in my mind are the film’s more intimate moments – Francesco’s conversation with Pina’s son after he has stayed out late and won’t say why, Pina’s conversations with Don Pietro about God and if they deserve the fate that has befallen them, and Manfriedi’s argument with Marina in which she blames him for not “changing her.” There are also several humorous moments. One of them involves Don Pietro and two very different statues that just happen to be facing each other. These moments, and many others that I haven’t mentioned, personalize these characters for viewers and make them people they genuinely care about. This makes watching the events that occur on and after Pina and Francesco’s intended wedding day all the more tragic.
Towards the end of the film, a character remarks that while dying well is easy, it is living in the right way that is hard. In a way, each of the film’s protagonists has shown viewers the way to live well. They are each filled with an awareness that there is a greater good that is worth putting themselves in harm’s way for, be that greater good the will of a higher power or simply a right they feel all humans innately have. At the same time, there is also an acknowledgement of the importance of personal happiness, that the family and the individual are still important even at times of great collective sacrifice. Manfriedi’s revolutionary actions are as much an act of defiance as Pina and Francesco’s engagement is, for each of them demonstrate a knowledge that what is important in life is not how many fancy accessories one has or how much land a country occupies, but love – love for one’s country, love for one’s fellow citizens, and love for one’s soul mate. And balancing these three loves is indeed challenging, especially during times when choosing one ultimately means losing the others. Open City occurs during one of these times in history when choosing to fight for what one loved meant risking almost certain death, yet its message is timeless. It deserves its place on the pantheon of world cinema. (on DVD)
4 and a half stars
*Open City is in Italian and German with English subtitles.
*Not all of the dialogue on Image-Entertainment’s DVD of Open City is subtitled.