Once Upon a Time… Rome, Open City (First Run/Icarus Films, NR)

dvd_rome.jpgGenin and July were wise in their choice of subject: anything that adds to understanding and appreciation of Rossellini’s class film is surely worth viewing.







In 1995, the Italian government issued a postage stamp commemorating the end of World War II: the image portrayed on the stamp was Anna Magnani’s death scene from Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City). It’s an appropriate choice: Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film (one of 10 Grand Prize winners at the Cannes Festival in 1946) is a solid gold classic of modern cinema despite its well-known technical imperfections and melodramatic plot, and the scene chosen is instantly recognizable to film fans the world over. There may have been a second motive behind the selection of this image, however: Roma rehabilitated Italians in the eyes of the world and in their own eyes as well, because it portrays them not as citizens of the Fascist nation which supported Franco and Hitler, but as noble resistance fighters struggling heroically against the German occupation.

That’s the kind of contextual information which makes Once Upon a Time…Rome Open City, a documentary by Marie Genin and Serge July which premiered at Cannes in 2006, worth seeing. It’s certainly not a classic on the scale of the film which is its subject, but does provide a wealth of information in a somewhat uneasy blend of clips from the Roma itself, archival interviews with Rossellini and other directors and critics such as Vittorio Taviani and François Truffaut, historic photographs and documentary film clips accompanied by didactic voiceover, and contemporary interviews with Rossellini colleagues and family members.

If Once Upon a Time…Rome Open City is only of middling quality as a documentary, Genin and July were wise in their choice of subject: anything that adds to understanding and appreciation of Rossellini’s class film is surely worth viewing. It’s not entirely common knowledge, for instance, that Rossellini and many of his contemporaries (including Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Vittorio De Sica) were trained by a fascist-backed Italian film industry which specialized in "white telephone" movies about the rich and glamorous which were intended to compete with the slickest contemporary products from Hollywood. Rossellini also produced three propaganda films for Vittorio Mussolini, Il Duce’s son and head of the Italian film industry, in the years 1941 to 1943. This provides a new perspective on the Italian neorealist style, of which Roma was an early exemplar.

True, neorealism was partly a product of necessity since the infrastructure of the Italian film industry was largely destroyed during World War II. But the neorealist style, with its location shooting, use of natural light, and casting of nonprofessional actors, was also a reaction against the studio style of filmmaking supported by the fascist regime. It’s rewarding to note that, despite working with often meager resources, the neorealists had the last laugh: the fascist films have long since been forgotten, while neorealist classics such as Roma, Città Aperta and Ladri di Biciclette (De Sica, 1948) are today considered to be among the greatest films ever made. | Sarah Boslaugh

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