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Tag Archives: Rome Open City

An Italian Cinema Primer: From Neo – to Psychological Realism, pt. 1

The most well-known period in the history of Italian cinema remains the era of “Italian Neorealism,” the legendarily socially conscious movement comprised of documentary-style films made during the years of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. But I think the best way to understand Italian cinema is to look at how the conventions of Neorealism gradually morphed into something quite different (and arguably even polar opposite) by the end of the 1960s – mostly at the hands of the very same filmmakers (Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, et al) who had been responsible for setting the world on fire by helping to create that earlier revolutionary movement. Antonioni purportedly once claimed that “the bicycle is no longer enough,” referring to the fact that a film character’s psychological problems should no longer be seen as stemming only from external factors. There is no more succinct description of the transition that occurred between the socially-rooted dilemmas of the characters in Neorealism and the more extravagant psychological flights of fancy found in Fellini or in the existential angst of the characters in Antonioni. It is also significant that the characters of Neorealism tended to be working class while the characters of the Psychological Realism of the ’60s tended to be affluent. Between these two seemingly opposite poles of Italian cinema can be found nothing less than the whole wide world.

The list is presented in chronological order and will be split across two posts. The first part below encompasses the years 1943 – 1959:

Ossessione (Visconti, 1943)

Luchino Visocnti’s unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is often cited as the birth of Italian Neorealism due to its working class milieu and use of documentary-style location shooting. However, Visconti’s employment of Cain’s Hollywood-style plot (a woman who runs an inn seduces an unemployed drifter into murdering her much older and less attractive husband) and the use of glamorous stars in the lead roles (Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti) better positions this as an early forerunner of the movement.

Rome, Open City (Rossellini, 1945)

Roberto Rossellini is, in my opinion, the greatest of all Italian directors and this low-budget but courageous dramatization of the Nazi occupation of Italy in the waning months of WWII, heroically made immediately after the period had ended, was where he first found himself. The climactic scenes depicting the torture of Resistance members by the forces of Fascism remind us of what true courage is, much more so than what has ever been achieved by the feel-goodism of Hollywood-style recreations. Anna Magnani’s performance is one of the miracles of cinema.

Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)

The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.

Bitter Rice (De Santis, 1949)

A fascinating melodrama/film noir/Neorealist hybrid set among female rice workers in the Po valley. The voluptuous Silvana Mangano became an international star overnight for her portrayal of Silvana, a working girl tempted by the bounty of a thief on the run. A huge commercial success upon its release due to its unbridled depiction of earthy sexuality, Bitter Rice still packs a memorable erotic punch today.

Stromboli (Rossellini, 1950)

After helping to define Neorealism only a few years earlier, Roberto Rossellini abruptly turned his back on the movement with this astonishing Ingrid Bergman-starring melodrama, the first in a profitable cycle of such films. An Eastern European woman (Bergman) agrees to marry an Italian fisherman in order to escape a prison camp in the aftermath of WWII. But life in the fishing of village of Stromboli isn’t all that she hoped it would be, which leads to a startling existential crisis. A film of both incredible documentary value (the tuna fishing sequence!) and visceral erotic symbolism.

The Gold of Naples (De Sica, 1954)

Following the box office flop of the bleak Neorealist Umberto D in 1952, director Vittorio de Sica returned to directing the light comedy that characterized his early work. He also returned to his native Napoli for this delightful anthology of comic vignettes: a gangster forges an unlikely relationship with a clown, a down-on-his luck aristocrat gambles with a child, a prostitute gets married, an unfaithful woman searches for her missing wedding ring. The incredible use of Neapolitan locations and the high-powered cast of glamorous actors (Sophia Loren, Silvana Mangano, de Sica himeself) make this arguably the most Italian film on this list.

Senso (Visconti, 1954)

Alida Valli is a wanton countess in 19th century Italy who betrays her country to pursue a destructive affair with a lieutenant of the occupying Austrian army (Farley Granger). Visconti’s elegant mise-en-scene, featuring impeccable period set and costume design rendered in ravishingly beautiful Technicolor, marked an about face from his early Neorealist phase and the beginning of a mature “operatic” style that would continue for the rest of his career.

Journey to Italy (AKA Journey to Italy) (Rossellini, 1954)

My favorite Italian movie ever is this deceptively simple melodrama about a bored married couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) who travel to Naples following a death in the family. As they wander the city separately (she visits museums and the ruins of Pompeii, he flirts with the prospect of adultery), they take emotional stock of their lives for the first time in years, leading to one of the most spiritually uplifting finales in cinema. A film in which nothing and everything happens, this is the birth of cinematic modernism without which such diverse films as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Contempt and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy would not be possible.

Il Grido (Antonioni, 1957)

Il Grido is unusual for Michelangelo Antonioni in that it focuses on a working class character (the first and last time he would do so) but is typical of the director in almost every other respect: a near plotless series of events, the theme of the alienating effects of modernity, a generally bleak tone and a fine compositional eye for landscapes and architecture. The American actor Steve Cochran is very good as the mechanic who breaks up with his long-term girlfriend, then takes her daughter on the road where he drifts through a series of casual affairs. Fascinating in its own right but even more so seeing how it prefigures an epic stretch of greatness that would begin with Antonioni’s very next film, 1960’s Lavventura.

Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)

This is in my opinion the best of Fellini’s pre-Dolce Vita films, a relatively fleet and stylistically subdued valentine to the genius acting talent of his wife Giulietta Masina. Here she plays the title character, an eternally optimistic prostitute who works the streets of Rome while conscientiously saving money and dreaming of a better life. The picaresque narrative takes her through a series of adventures both humorous and heartbreaking, climaxing in an extraordinary final shot, a tribute to an indomitable spirit that will permanently burn itself into your brain.

To be continued . . .

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All Roads Lead to Rome Open City

As a critic in the 1950s, Jean-Luc Godard quipped that “all roads lead to Rome Open City.” Given the film’s continued status as one of the three quintessential works of the Italian Neorealist movement (alongside of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema) and hence one of the most influential movies made in any era, Godard’s statement rings as true today as it did over half a century ago. With the recent DVD release of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (in which the Criterion Collection has bundled together Rome Open City with Rossellini’s other Neorealist masterpieces Paisan and Germany Year Zero), I happily find myself with a new occasion to re-examine what made, and still makes, this breakthrough movie such an important and vital standard-bearer of the thorny concept of “movie realism.”

The Neorealist movement initially arose as a reaction against the prestigious “White Telephone” films (glossy melodramas so nicknamed because of the conversations they often depicted involving wealthy characters speaking to each other on white phones) that had previously dominated the Italian film industry under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. In contrast to the big budgets, glamorous stars and studio sets of White Telephone cinema, which seemed imitative of the glossy melodramas coming out of Hollywood at the same time, the Neorealists (a term coined by the directors themselves) sought to present a degree of unfettered realism never before seen on Italian cinema screens. What Neorealism did that the escapist White Telephone films did not was address contemporary social problems such as crime, unemployment, poverty and, of course, the ravages of war. After years of presenting a world that corresponded to working class audience desires, the Italian film industry was suddenly holding a mirror in front of that audience for the very first time.

Ironically, one of the reasons why Neorealism was able to flourish during the 1940s was because Italy had been decimated by the war and the national economy was in shambles. Cinecitta, the biggest studio in Rome (then as now), was being used to house war refugees and the government had no money to support the local film industry. But the Neorealist directors weren’t interested in shooting at Cinecitta anyway. They preferred the raw and gritty aesthetic that documentary-style location shooting provided, as Luchino Visconti had proved with his powerful debut film Ossessione in 1942. In a way, the economically ravaged industry played right into the hands of the Neorealist directors and probably extended the life of the movement by several years.

Rome Open City, the first true masterpiece of Neorealism, began shooting in Rome in January 1945, a mere six months after the Nazi-occupied city had been liberated by the Allied forces. Eight months after that, with much of Rome still reduced to rubble from the fighting, Rossellini’s film premiered in Italian theaters. Rome Open City looks remarkable today in that it dramatizes events that only months previously had actually occurred in many of the same urban locations. This sense of immediacy provided by Rome Open City and other Italian films of the 1940s had no correlation in any other national cinema, least of all in Hollywood, and the whole world became transfixed by the sheer novelty of this bold “new realism.” As a consequence, it wasn’t uncommon for Neorealist films to play in even the most rural areas of the United States in the 1940s – as newspaper ads from Watauga County, North Carolina of the period can attest (even if independent theater owners had to sex up their advertisements for Paisan with photos of a scantily clad woman and the titillating tagline “More open than Open City!”).

The plot of Rome Open City concerns the plight of members of the Italian resistance to the occupational Nazi government, namely the resistance leader Manfredi, the underground Communist newspaper printer Francesco, Francesco’s fiancé Pina and the priest Don Pietro. The latter two characters are the most unforgettable and, perhaps not coincidentally, were played by the most experienced actors in the cast. After seeing the film, who can forget Aldo Fabrizi (best known in Italy, incredibly, as a comedian) as Don Pietro, cursing the Nazis with tears streaming down his face before begging God for forgiveness? Or the even more famous scene where Pina, magnificently embodied by Anna Magnini, runs after a prison truck shouting “Francesco!” as the Nazis cart her soon-to-be-husband away? The latter scene, a quick montage of short takes and one dramatic tracking shot, conjures up the abruptness and finality of death as well as any scene in the history of cinema.

But Rome Open City is not only definitive Neorealism because it is a great and groundbreaking film; it also contains all of the hallmarks of the movement (in much the same way that Out of the Past contains all of the hallmarks of film noir); this includes shooting scenes silently and post-synchronizing the sound, a loosely constructed narrative with an ambiguous, “open” ending (the fate of at least one character is a complete mystery) and the aforementioned use of location shooting. However, the extent to which Neorealist conventions are typified by the film has been muddied somewhat in the decades since its original release. For many years the poor quality of circulating prints helped to foster the myth that Rossellini had shot Rome Open City on “short ends” of mismatching film stock. When the original negative was restored in 1995, this was discovered not to be the case. And while the film does feature several rubble-strewn exteriors that are incredibly evocative, it has also come to light that some of the key interiors were shot on studio-constructed sets.

One of the reasons Criterion’s DVD release of Rome Open City is such a revelation is that it proves the film is far better looking than most of us had ever realized. The poor image quality of the old Image DVD had fooled me into thinking that flaws from a worn and faded print, not to mention a less than optimum transfer, were part and parcel of some sort of consciously constructed Neorealist Integrity on the part of Rossellini. The Criterion disc proves that while the film does contain some gritty visual textures, they exist side-by-side with camerawork that is slick and polished and not too far removed from the aesthetics of the White Telephone films that Rossellini was rebelling against.

While Rome Open City will likely never be as famous or audience friendly as Bicycle Thieves, Rossellini today looks like the undisputed heavyweight champion director of Italian Neorealism. His body of work as a whole has certainly been the most influential of any of the filmmakers who got their start in the movement, in part because the films he made in the 1940s were only the first phase in a long and continually surprising career; Rossellini went on to make very different kinds of films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (including an astonishing cycle of romantic melodramas in collaboration with Ingrid Bergman and a series of didactic, de-dramatzed but strangely enthralling history films that in some perverse way represent Neorealism pushed to its logical limit). But none of those later phases would have been possible if Rossellini had not first cut his teeth on the low-budget but genuinely risk-taking Rome Open City, a film for which no one at the time may have been clamoring but which, posterity has proven, the world nonetheless very much-needed.


Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2010

Below is a list of my fifty favorite home video releases of 2010 – the top ten in preferential order and a 40-way tie(!) for number eleven. The only titles below that I didn’t actually purchase were the Von Sternberg, Costa and Gaumont box sets, which I rented instead, and that was mainly due to my fear that they will become available in better quality Blu-ray editions in the near future. In making the list, I arrived at my rankings by averaging my estimation of the quality of the movie as a whole, the image/sound transfer and the supplemental material. I also decided to spread the love around a little by including only one film per distributor in my top ten. Criterion and Masters of Cinema would have otherwise locked up most of those slots and I believe that a lot of other distribution companies deserve recognition for the brilliant work they’ve done. As this list should make clear, we are living in a true golden age of home video where the history of world cinema is readily available in breathtaking quality as it never has been before (at least for anyone with a multi-region Blu-ray player).

The Top Ten (preferential order):

10. Dust in the Wind (Hou, Taiwan, 1987) – Central Pictures / Sony Music Blu-ray

This disc isn’t perfect. For one thing, the image is interlaced instead of progressive scan. But this is such a quantum leap over the old non-anamorphic DVDs in every other area (clarity, color, depth and contrast), that I was still ecstatic to see it. The film itself, a delicate love story about teenage country bumpkins who move to Taipei in search of greater opportunity in the 1960s, remains one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s best early works, paving the way for the opening segment of his masterpiece Three Times. I had previously thought of the cinematography in this movie as merely functional. Sony’s Blu-ray proves that it’s actually very beautiful. I can’t wait for more HHH in HD!

9. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – Universal Blu-ray

Universal haven’t gotten things 100% right when it comes to Blu-ray. They haven’t been as meticulous about image quality as, say, Warner Brothers (see last year’s perfect North By Northwest disc for comparison), and I find their generic menus especially annoying. But I did enjoy Psycho‘s subtle but effective new 5.1 surround sound mix, which did not require the recording of new music/effects tracks like the blasphemous 1990s “restoration” of Vertigo. Bottom line: this version is the best that Alfred Hitchcock’s most disturbing film has ever looked and sounded on home video and is an essential addition to any serious movie library. More here.

8. Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, France, 1970) – Studio Canal Blu-ray

Jolly am I made by what I consider the greatest of all heist pictures, a crime subgenre of which I am quite fond! Studio Canal deserves kudos for being the first to marry Jean-Pierre Melville, the undisputed king of French film noir, with the Blu-ray format. The end result is a thing of beauty, more than making up for their botched job of Godard’s Le Mepris from last year. Now bring on the Criterion Army of Shadows. Full review here.

7. A Star Is Born (Cukor, USA, 1954) – Warner Brothers Blu-ray

Warner Brothers has consistently bested the other Hollywood studios when it comes to putting out lovingly restored, high-quality Blu-ray discs of their “catalogue titles.” For me, their best 2010 offering was this new high-def transfer of Ron Haver’s 1983 labor-of-love restoration of George Cukor’s epic musical/melodrama. Judy Garland’s force of nature performance as rising star Vicki Lester has caused many to regard this as the greatest “one woman show” in film history but I think it’s James Mason’s quietly devastating performance as fading movie star Norman Maine that gives A Star is Born its soul. The Blu-ray format is particularly well-suited to Cukor’s mise-en-scene, which alternates between brilliantly vibrant Technicolor sequences and unusually dark images with diffused shadows dominating.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – Gaumont Blu-ray

French distributor Gaumont made my dreams come true by releasing one of my favorite movies ever in a region-free edition with English subtitles. The image quality may not provide as eye-poppingly drastic of an upgrade over previous editions as did their immaculate restoration of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (also available region-free with English subs). But A Man Escaped, an exciting prison escape drama made in Robert Bresson’s inimitable “essentialist” style, is simply the better movie and, indeed, one of the towering achievements of the film medium. Hopefully, the rest of his catalogue will soon follow. Full review here.

5. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929) – Carlotta Blu-ray

The still-underrated Frank Borzage is the most romantic filmmaker of all time and Lucky Star from 1929 may be his finest hour: a luminous melodrama concerning the love that blossoms between a farm girl (the always superb Janet Gaynor) and a disabled WWI vet (a never better Charles Farrell). Incredibly, this was a “lost” film until a print turned up in the Netherlands in 1990. That print serves as the source for this transfer and appears to be in remarkably good shape — better than any prints Fox had in their vaults of Borzage’s other silents. Strange that a Hollywood masterpiece like this would only be available on Blu-ray from a distributor in France, but this is an essential purchase for lovers of silent film.

4. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – Kino Blu-ray

Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece looks more prescient than ever in this “complete” cut, in which 25 minutes have been restored for the first time since the film’s 1927 premiere. The missing footage was long considered one of cinema’s holy grails (alongside the missing footage from Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons), so this release is cause for celebration. Kino’s Blu-ray is perfect. More here.

3. Late Spring / The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1949) – BFI Blu-ray

Last summer, the British Film Institute did the world of cinephilia a massive favor by releasing four of Yasujiro Ozu’s best films on Blu-ray (with more on the way in 2011). Two of his most sublime domestic dramas about intergenerational family conflict, The Only Son from 1936 and Late Spring from 1949, appeared on a single disc, automatically vaulting it to the top of my list of the year’s best releases. This is how all high-definition transfers should look — as faithful as possible to the experience of seeing the films as they would look projected in a theater, including whatever damage is inherent to the original film elements. Very film-like and very beautiful. Full review here.

2. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1945-1948) – The Criterion Collection DVD

If this had been a Blu-ray release, it would have unquestionably been number one on my list. But since good transfers of Roberto Rossellini’s monumental World War II trilogy have never truly existed on home video in any format, I can only be grateful to Criterion for the hard work that must have gone into restoring these films and presenting them on standard DVD in the impressive shape in which they appear here. (Paisan in particular seems to have been rescued from oblivion.) The movies themselves are definitive neo-realism, using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, location shooting with studio sets, and relaying ambiguous, loosely constructed narratives concerning the Italian resistance to the German occupation (Rome Open City) and the aftermath of the war in both Italy (Paisan) and Germany (Germany Year Zero). But it’s the copious supplemental material, including feature-length documentaries, interviews with Rossellini and an enlightening “visual essay” by Tag Gallagher, that pushes this to the front ranks of Criterion’s most important releases ever.

1. City Girl (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1930) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray

F.W. Murnau’s romantic masterpiece, without which Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven would be unthinkable, finally gets the treatment it deserves from the good folks at Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. The story is the flip-side of Sunrise, where the good-hearted title character from Chicago moves with her new husband to a Minnesota farm only to find her existence made a living hell by her live-in father-in-law. This contains some of the most visually ecstatic and transcendental moments in all of cinema, such as the swooping, swooning camera movement that follows Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan as they run through a wheat field before collapsing to the ground in newlywed bliss. The image quality of this Blu-ray is so clean and so pristine that it sets the bar impossibly high for all future HD transfers of silent-era films.

Runners Up (alphabetical order):

11. 3 Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg (Von Sternberg, Criterion DVD)
12. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Kino Blu-ray)
13. Bigger Than Life (Ray, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
15. Breathless (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
16. Close-Up (Kiarostami Criterion Blur-ray)
17. Cronos (Del Toro, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Days of Heaven (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
19. Early Summer / What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
20. The Exorcist (Friedkin, Warner Brothers Blu-ray)
21. Fallen Angels (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
22. Fantomas (Feuillade, Kino DVD)
23. French Can Can (Renoir, Gaumont Blu-ray)
24. Gaumont Treasures 1897 – 1913 (Feuillade/Guy/Perret, Kino DVD)
25. Happy Together (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
26. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, Summit Blu-ray)
27. The Leopard (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
28. Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Costa, Criterion DVD)
29. Lola Montes (Ophuls, Criterion Blu-ray)
30. M (Lang, Criterion Blu-ray)
31. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
32. Modern Times (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)
33. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, Studio Canal Blu-ray)
34. Night of the Hunter (Laughton, Criterion Blu-ray)
35. Peeping Tom (Powell, Optimum Blu-ray)
36. Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
37. Red Desert (Antonioni, Criterion Blu-ray)
38. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
39. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Criterion Blu-ray)
40. Sherlock Jr. / The Three Ages (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
41. Shutter Island (Scorsese, Paramount Blu-ray)
42. Stagecoach (Ford, Criterion Blu-ray)
43. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
44. The Thin Red Line (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
45. Tokyo Story / Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu BFI Blu-ray)
46. Une Femme Mariee (Godard, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
47. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
48. Vengeance Trilogy (Park, Palisades Tartan Blu-ray)
49. Vivre sa Vie (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)
50. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, Arte Video Blu-ray)


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