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Birth of Neorealism: Open City

It took another two years for the Allies to totally expel Fascist-Nazi forces from the north of the country. While the Allies fought to break through Axis lines into the north, a number of anti-Fascist resistance parties were already working behind the battle lines. These parties, representing the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Communists, served as a call to arms for the Italian people, fighting the Nazism-Fascism that still plagued their country. With the help of the resistance, the Allied forces finally broke through the front line, and on April 25, 1945 made the liberation of Italy complete.

But even before the Fascist regime had completely fallen in the north, Italian filmmakers had secretly begun to film the first post-war movies. In Rome, Roberto Rossellini had started filming his classic, Open City, while the Germans still occupied the streets. With the city's studios destroyed, he was forced to resort to shooting in the streets, and did so on stock that was purchased bit by bit from street vendors and taped together. This resulting film would be hailed as the first of the great Italian neorealist movement.

To understand the effects of Rossellini's work, it is necessary to define neorealism here. In its most general terms it is a group of films that shared core characteristics of method, the use of non-professional actors, natural lighting, and location shooting; attitude, the desire to get closer to everyday reality; subject matter, the lives of the post-war popular classes; and ideology, the hope of political renewal in its early years, and later a loss of hope coinciding with the failure of the renewal (Nowell-Smith, 87). Each of these characteristics built on the preceding one, culminating in the directors' ultimate goal of conveying the hope (and later, pessimism) of renewal.

The use of non-professional actors, and location shooting provided the viewer of the neorealist film with images different from those seen in typical (Hollywood) cinema of the time. The actor was no longer handsome and well-trained, but instead looked as if he was plucked off the streets. (And indeed he was; in De Sica's Bicycle Thief, the son of Ricci was played by a boy found on the streets by the filming crew). His surroundings were no longer carefully constructed but were instead the austere streets of Rome. Peter Brunette explains how the use of these elements accomplished a sense of reality for viewers: "Conventional cinema demands a basic level of plausibility, enough to allow us to put ourselves emotionally into the created world of the film.... We perceive something as realistic...when it corresponds to a set of conventionalized expectations...about what people in movies do.... When we experience...a film as more realistic than usual...it is because it is pushing against the currently accepted boundaries of the realistic, closer toward the dangerous unpredictability of the (represented) real." (Brunette, 57).

Neorealism often used non-professional actors. In Bicycle Thief, Bruno was played by a young boy that the film crew found on the streets.

Similarly, the feeling of realism accomplished by the cinematographic mode and mise-en-scene, when combined with the life of the common people of Italy, could only evoke a sense of the grim nature of the post-war times, the harshness of poverty and unemployment, the social chasm between the "haves" and the "have-nots", and the isolation of the individual from the societal group. It was these ideas which gave meaning to the films of the neorealist movement; they transcended the minimal narratives as the important themes of the play, speaking out against the plethora of maladies which plagued post-war Italian life.

As noted previously, Rossellini's Open City ushered in this new era of Italian film. Though the use of realist techniques were forced upon the masterpiece since it was filmed in an occupied Rome where all the studios had been destroyed during the war, the effects were at the same time intended--"They new exactly what they were after and knew that they were getting it." (Brunette, 42). The end result was a film that contained some elements of the pervasive American cinematographic style, but was primarily realist in its nature. Its cast was comprised of a mix of both professional and non-professional actors. Rossellini noted: "I select my performers on the basis of their physical appearance.... I watch a man in his day-to-day life and get him embedded in my memory. Facing the camera, he will no longer be himself.... He forgets who he is, thinking that he was chosen for the role because he has become an exceptional human being. I have to bring him back to his real nature, to reconstruct him, to teach him his usual gestures again." (Liehm, 68).

Thus, the actors were chosen for how closely they resembled the typical lower class Italian of the time. Rossellini placed them, representing the common people united by the resistance, in the stark and squalid surroundings of the tenements of Rome.

Though the film's visual style incorporates many of the elements of neorealism, it departs from these codes in more ways than one. For instance, its plot is of such historical significance and so powerful that it literally pushes aside the typical concerns of the genre, forcing social commentary to take a backseat to the action. Conversely, in De Sica's Bicycle Thief, the narrative is so minimal that "the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray-dog column," (Bazin, 50), allowing the concerns of poverty, unemployment and alienation to take center stage. Open City concerns itself with the epic nature of the resistance. This is also seen in the social status of the characters, which are empowered to a degree. Manfredi and Don Pietro are not required to accept what happens in the world around them like De Sica's elderly and resigned Umberto; they are clearly protagonists. Along with the stronger narrative comes some remnants of other film styles such as the melodrama, with its brief moments of uplifting comedy. Don Pietro, a priest, knocks out the old man in the tenements with a frying pan over the head, and earlier he turns the figure of St. Rocco to face away from the nude statue while waiting to meet Francesco at the shop. Though these features were not part of the typical neorealist film, Rossellini's commentary on society is still heard beneath the powerful narrative.

Fighters from the resistance in Open City. Don Pietro (left) and Francesco (right).

The message that Rossellini hopes to get across in his historically based story of resistance against the occupation is articulated in the clear terms of black and white. To him, and indeed to the nation, the Nazis were the corrupting force, which was responsible for the social problems of daily life in Italy. To emphasize this difference, Rossellini once again breaks from neorealist tradition. Though the Italians and their environment are represented in the typical realist manner, the world of the Germans seems to be much more constructed. To the leader, Bergmann, Rome is simply a city on a map, divided conveniently into a number of sectors, and is composed of a collection of photographs and newspaper reports which he uses to "watch over the city." The realism of the sprawling city in which the Italians are placed contrasts with the German headquarters that is made of a mere three rooms, fitting together in an almost unbelievably neat fashion. The fact that to one side of Bergmann's office is a torture chamber and to the other is an officers lounge stocked with a piano, drinks and women is decidedly unreal, and blatantly violates the spatial sense of reality which the neorealist movement strives for. Brunette argues that "the headquarters then become clearly symbolic, a stylized landscape and almost mathematical demonstration of the corruption of Nazi culture. The lack of a total commitment to realism, in other words, enables the director to get at things that lie beyond realism." (Brunette, 60). If the symbolic nature of the German's world is not enough, the scene where the Gestapo soldiers bring two sheep to the inn-keeper for meat and say, "We'll be the butchers," and the inn-keeper replies, "Yes... you're specialists in that," clearly drives the point home.

Bergmann "watches" the city through his photos and newspapers (left).
The unrealistic Gestapo headquarters (right).

Rossellini's film also stresses the theme of hope for the future. Unlike the future films of the movement that became progressively more pessimistic in their predictions of the renewal of societal structure in the future, Open City, though depressing in its presentation of life, remains hopeful for a better tomorrow. Francesco talks to Pina in the flats and tells her, "We must believe it, we must want it.... We mustn't be afraid because we are on the just path.... We're fighting for something that must come. It may be long...it may be difficult, but there'll be a better world." It is this attitude towards the future that Rossellini hopes to imbue in his viewers.

Perhaps the most poignant display of this vision is seen at the end of the film after Don Pietro has been executed. The young children of the resistance have turned out to support him during his execution, whistling his song as he is marched to the chair. After his lifeless body is taken away, the children, united as one, turn back to Rome whose skyline stretches across the screen, and together make their way back down into the streets, symbolizing the new wave of hope that may yet save the people from the corruption that possesses them. Indeed, Rossellini has shown a brutal Rome, but most important, it is a Rome and a people that can still be saved.

The children descend upon Rome, the next hope for the people of Italy.


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