The classic film Open City released on DVD
Ask six film scholars to define "neorealism" and you’ll likely receive a half-dozen different responses. Generally speaking, the term refers to a distinctive style of cinematic storytelling that flourished in Italy in the decade following World War II. During this period, many directors made a virtue of their meager post-war resources by presenting a fresh and unvarnished kind of social realism. They filmed their movies on actual locations, often in a semi-documentary manner, usually with casts that included a large percentage of nonprofessional actors.
The late, great Roberto Rossellini is widely acknowledged as the filmmaker who introduced Italian neorealism to international audiences with Open City, his bold and bracing mix of harshly realistic naturalism, passionately contrived melodrama, and what critic André Bazin aptly described as "reconstituted reportage."
Shot within weeks of the Allied liberation, with film stock purchased from black marketeers, Open City has the compelling immediacy of a newsreel as it offers a black-and-white (literally as well as figuratively) account of life and death during the repressive German occupation.
The plot, as simple and efficient as a blunt instrument, deals with doomed heroes of the Italian resistance movement. Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), on the run from Nazi manhunters, seeks help from comrade-in-arms Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), and Pina (Anna Magnani), Francesco’s pregnant wife-to-be. Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), a Partisan priest, also figures in the story (co-written by a young Federico Fellini) as a loyal supporter of the cause.
Ultimately, Manfredi is betrayed by his former sweetheart, Marina (Maria Michi), a drug-addicted actress who’s seduced by a predatory lesbian employed by a diabolical Gestapo officer. But Manfredi manages to withstand the sadistic torture ordered by Major Bergmann, and dies without naming names. Don Pietro also is captured, and dies heroically before a German firing squad. But neither Manfredi’s torture nor Don Pietro’s execution is as shocking as the abrupt shooting of Pina, who’s gunned down while pursuing a German truck transporting the arrested Francesco.
Open City is not the most subtle of wartime dramas. Major Bergmann, played with effete arrogance by Harry Feist, appears to have walked in from an American-made B-movie of the period. Ingrid, the predatory lesbian played by Giovanna Galletti, does everything but wink lasciviously at the camera to convey her cunning.
On the other side of the equation, the good guys are relentlessly stoic and heroic in their defiance, setting aside sociopolitical differences---Manfredi is frankly depicted as a Communist atheist---for the greater good of Italy. Only Anna Magnani’s Pina is allowed some slight shadings of character, especially when she expresses her embarrassment at being in a family way before her wedding day. In the end, however, the melodramatic plotting and stereotypical characters are infused with more than enough conviction to make Open City a timeless work of art.
Image Entertainment claims its DVD release of Rossellini’s masterwork is mastered from a "pristine" 35mm archive print, which is, to put it charitably, an overstatement. Still, this version of Open City should greatly please those who have suffered through viewings of the far inferior VHS versions in wide circulation. More important, the scratches and blemishes visible on DVD actually serve to enhance the film’s documentary-style verisimilitude.