Thursday, August 12, 2010

100 years, 100 films 36: Open City (1945)

We have been conditioned by thousands of Hollywood movies to think of spies as people with almost superhuman abilities and total emotional detachment. They may enjoy sex, but apart from that, they're pretty much robots. They're always expertly trained in everything, and their motto is always "professionalism". Obviously there are exceptions to these rules, even amongst conventional Hollywood spy movies. But I've never seen a movie that depicts spies like Roberto Rossellini's Open City depicts spies. Open City's spies are real humans - they aren't mythological beings acting out some Kabuki play for the audience's enjoyment. They're average people with average desires and goals, but they're driven to the extremes of heroism by circumstances that seem beyond their control.

The film is set in Italy in 1944. Italy has been bombed ceaselessly by the Americans and the British, and is overrun by Nazis who feel nothing but disdain for the Italians they are forced to deal with. It's this climate of constant fear of death from the Allies, and torture from the Nazis, that forces otherwise regular Italians into working as spies for the Communists, who seem to be the only people not attempting to destroy Italy. These people who become spies don't just abandon all their other problems, they still have to deal with girl troubles, or money troubles, or food troubles. And it's this refusal to abandon their previous lives that make these characters all feel real, and honest, and it gives the film an underlying sense of truth. Sure, some pretty melodramtic stuff happens in Open City, but it never feels fake. It just feels like life is serving up a big hunk of crap to these people, and they've got to deal with it. The overlying sense of realism gives the moments of melodrama a raw emotional power that they just simply would not possess in a Hollywood film.

The film isn't perfect. It's attitude towards women is pretty damn mysoginistic, even for its time (which is a real shame, because the film does have some great female performances). And the subtitling on the copy I watched was, quite frankly, woeful. And while the spies are more realistic here than they would be in a Hollywood film, the Nazis are exactly as two dimensional. But the movie is still really damn powerful.

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