Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) ushered in a period — and a style — of filmmaking called Italian neo-realism — a movement in Italian cinema born more of economics than an aesthetic decision. Federico Fellini, who had his first job in film as co-screenwriter of this film, wrote, “It was an art form invented by necessity. A neorealist was in reality any practical person who wanted to work.” This is quickly obvious when watching Open City, a film made on real locations with (often badly matched) bits and pieces of film left behind by the Nazis. There’s less a sense of doing something grounbreaking than of simply getting the film made.
Open City evokes a 1940s Poverty Row production — and there’s a good deal of that in its dramatic sense as well. Much of its story and the characterization of the Nazis are sheer B-movie melodrama. (Screams are heard from a room at Nazi headquarters. The explanation is, “They’re interrogating that professor in there,” to which the effete Major Bergmann complains that “these Italians” scream too much.) It’s perhaps apt, since gritty realism (for the same reason: economics) marked the best of Poverty Row movies. But the true “realism” comes from within the film and from the sense of artists banded together to make something because they had something to say. Beyond the melodrama and the poorly matched shots and the makeshift lighting, it is this that came through in 1945. It resonates even today.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke