I mostly know the last name Rossellini — as in Roberto Rossellini, the director of Rome, Open City — in relation to his daughter, Isabella, who stars in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and whose performance in that movie, or the legacy of that performance, is marred by the kinds of stories that you’ll hear in respect to Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of Shelly Duvall on the set of The Shining, or Alfred Hitchcock treating Tippi Hedren on the set of Marnie — episodes of male directors subjecting a female star to an emotionally grueling, degrading, and ultimately traumatizing experience on set.
When it comes to Blue Velvet, I first heard this from Roger Ebert.
Magnanimous enough, giving credit to both Lynch as a talented filmmaker and to Rossellini as a daring performer, Ebert suggests that Lynch exploited her. Subjected her to degrading scenarios. Rossellini, however, has said on several occasions — most recently at a celebration of Blue Velvet‘s 30th anniversary — that she enjoyed the experience, was excited to rise to the challenge, and has spoken at length about the precautions that were taken to ensure a comfortable experience on set. (With Kubrick and Hitchcock, and the actresses they terrorized respectively, it’s a different story.)
“In the course of the film, Rossellini is put through a more severe emotional ordeal than any movie performer since Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in “Last Tango in Paris.” In one scene, she walks naked on the lawn of the local police chief, while strangers form a crowd. I found that her scenes had an unexpected effect. I responded to their raw power, yes, but the more I thought about them, the angrier I got, because Lynch surrounds them with what is essentially a satire on small-town comedies. He generates this immense and painful power, and then uses it merely as counterpoint to an immature satire.” — Roger Ebert, “My Problem with Blue Velvet“
But it sets up an interesting situation for the critic — in this case Ebert — who says, with a responsible magnanimity and thoroughness, that what was done to the actress on film is exploitative — meanwhile the actress, seemingly always with a smile, insists that she wasn’t exploited. Says she had a good time. Does that mean the critic is wrong? What about when we say it of porn stars, especially those between the ages of 18 and 21, who — as we see in Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s documentary Hot Girls Wanted, are clearly being coerced and exploited, despite the fact that they’re signing up for these films willingly.
My instinct when it comes to stuff like this is to interpret it as the woman, the supposed victim, interpreted the event. If she says it wasn’t exploitative, then it wasn’t exploitative. Having come to know Ebert so well throughout the Project, though, and knowing that he was a genuinely good man who was ahead of his time on lotsa matters, that he was genuinely concerned about civil rights, women’s rights — a champion of the underdog. Well-intentioned. It think it was a misstep on his end to insist that Isabella Rossellini had been exploited, even after she countered that she hadn’t, but at the same time it does set an example, initially, for critics who are concerned about the ethical development of the thing they’re critiquing.
I’m talking here about Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 masterpiece, Rome, Open City, which feels at once grittier than most films on the List so far, with what appears to be a handheld camera being used throughout, and but also seems just as sophisticated (which isn’t to say polished) as any other movie of its time. I assumed in the beginning, on the basis of that grittiness, that Rome would be a sort of historical snapshot, no story, just a lightly fictionalizes chronicle of how people lived and resisted in Nazi-occupied Rome. But it’s comprised, instead, of a surprisingly complex (and, just as surprising to me, totally accessible) story with a strong cast, each character beautifully distinct and sympathetic, that generates as much style, intrigue, excitement as the highest-order of Hollywood fare from the same period — Hollywood being a place where I’m guessing the filmmakers have more resources at their disposal, including the experience of all the seasoned crew and filmmakers milling about the studio.
Except Rome‘s got none of that Hollywood gloss. Shit feels gritty. The walls and staircases are bare concrete and you can feel the dustiness, the crud on the floor. Rome, Open City isn’t the first indie movie on the List but it does feel like one of the first movies to be made, with few means and total freedom, by somebody who just grew up on film, who loves it, and who isn’t content with just getting his story out there, or communicating a political message, but who wants to make a legitimately exciting picture. One that both emphasizes and distracts a then-traumatized postwar Italian audience from the shit they’ve just endured (and the economic turmoil that was ongoing).
There’s a lot going on here, as I mentioned, and the movie kinda reminds me of Pulp Fiction in how it’s so episodic, and how the storylines intersect, but I thought the most compelling subplot was one that’s actually a conflation of two: there’s a group of boys who’ve made a bomb and plan to kill some Nazis with it. Meanwhile there’s a priest, played with beautifully subdued tenderness and courage by Aldo Fabrizi, who’s facilitating some low-key resistance stuff around town. [Editor’s Note from the Future: The priest here is a lot like the subversive unionizing priest in On the Waterfront.] There’s a scene where Nazis are raiding the kids’ apartment building, looking for contraband, while the priest and central boy character weave through the halls, looking for a place to hide it as the soldiers close in. No spectacle, nothing flashy about the camera placement or the cutting, and yet it’s as suspenseful as anything in Hitchcock.
I need to look into Rossellini’s bio but I’m getting a vibe like he’s an autodidact — which, as Thousand Movie Project’s Declaration of Principles made clear, is an A+ quality.
As much as I felt reeled into the action, as close as I felt to the characters and as much as they moved me (particularly Anna Magnani’s authoritative and loving relationship with her son, and her infamous fate), I didn’t catch a single name. I knew them only by face. But, adding to that indie vibe, it would make sense that Rossellini, going for this distinctly dusty and gritty look, wouldn’t place much emphasis on the characters’ names. He’s visually motivated and, film being a visual medium, a face is just as good as a name. (When reading books, if I come across a character name that belongs to another culture, I think I remember it more by how the name looks on the page, the order of the letters, than I do by digesting its pronunciation or the sound of it.)
Though the only titles I can call readily to mind are Defiance and Valkyrie and Inglorious Basterds, it seems that most movies that depict the hardship of civilian life under Nazi occupation show the heroes, the victims, as more than simple civilians. They tend to be cogs in a larger plot to kill Hitler, or wipe out tons of Nazis, or destroy a major resource; to hobble the regime somehow.
The characters in Rome, Open City, however, are fairly simple. Even those in the National Liberation Committee. It’s an Italian film, made by an Italian filmmaker, that showcases the struggle and celebrates the courage of its people, and the way that they persevered through something awful. It’s a straightforward dramatic thriller, and I’ll hazard to say it’s got universal appeal, but an American like myself also gets a deep vibe of eavesdropping on something personal between the filmmaker and his people.