Bleak House: "Open City" and "Gertrud"

(It should be noted that all of my posts are reflections on films and/or books in their entirety, and may not be suitable for the spoiler-wary.)

I have recently begun courting an unfamiliar movement, a movement that I probably would have quietly avoided had it not been for my religious adherence to the 1001 Movies project: Italian neo-realism. I started with Visconti's "Ossessione" (1943) several weeks ago and had a fairly neutral response, even to the famously odd operatic competition that comes in the middle of an otherwise grittily quotidian narrative. (The urban interludes of "Ossessione" strongly recall, for me at least, the rather surreal visit to the city in Vigo's "L'Atalante," which itself harkens back a bit to the giddiness of Murnau's "Sunrise.") Recently, I have progressed through my list to the first indisputably neorealist film, and the first film of the movement to reach American theatres, Rossellini's "Roma, Citta  Aperta" ("Open City," 1945).

What shocked me about "Open City" was how relentingly grim it is (to turn a critical cliche on its side). It hardly lacks the movement's trademark social earnestness and narrative of brutality, its response to years of fascist (and foreign) subjugation, but this bleakness of outlook frequently gives way before stories of love and an almost slapstick comic tendency (the key comic scene being the one in which a leftist, patriotic priest has to knock an old man unconscious to maintain the facade that he is performing extreme unction, rather than coming to the rescue of an insurgent). As a result, it was not nearly as grueling a viewing experience as I had come to believe neo-realism must be. Of course, as the film progresses, the idealism of our heroes does come gruesomely into conflict with the repressive practices of their German governors, and the narratives all come to their inevitable, patriotic, violent ends. "Italians of all classes have a weakness for rhetoric" says the creepy German inquisitor at the film's end, ironically echoing his earlier observation that Italians, as a people, are uncommonly given to melodramatic screaming under torture.

Despite the lack of good film stock, and the difficulties of filming in the upheaval of post-war Italy more generally, the film's drive towards realism in no way denies the power of carefully constructed, even beautiful images. The rebel Italians we follow throughout the film all live in a single apartment building, and a great deal is made of the triangular stairwell abutting their flats - people rush up and down it while unfolding various acts of resistance, with the camera peering at them curiously from all kinds of vertiginous angles. The scene where Anna Magnani is cut down by bullets while trying to reach her fiance, who has just been arrested as an insurgent on the morning of their wedding day, is somehow both unexpected and inevitable, a moment worthy of classical tragedy.

The film is marred, I am sad to say, by the most infuriatingly minimalist subtitles I have ever encountered, and my measly year of Italian was just not sufficient to fill in the difference between what was said by the characters and what was translated at the bottom of the screen. Again and again long monologues would be distilled into a single, uninformative sentence while I struggled with the few words I could understand aurally.

It is worth mentioning another film which traffics in bleakness, albeit in a significantly more humorless way: Dreyer's "Gertrud." Dreyer's film is an exploration of the freedom of sexual and amorous choice, and of his heroine's utterly unrequited need for an all-consuming love, a love which eclipses all other interests and values. Its approach to bleakness is utterly different from "Open City'"s: its striking style consists of long (impossibly long), stolid shots, allowing the intensive impassiveness of the heroine's expression, as she encounters the various lovers who compete for her attention, to wash over us across a span of several minutes. Whole scenes go by in which the characters chant unemotively about the love that has been lost while staring past each other into space. This is a drama of disconnection.

Watching "Gertrud" is like watching a Strindberg play in which the sex has been drained of all appeal and threat, or an Ibsen play without any narrative of familial conflict. Which is to say that Dreyer imports the theatrical idiom (particularly the claustrophobic domestic space we have come to associated with these Scandinavian playwrights) of these writers without any real interest in what drives their narratives. I don't mean to imply that "Gertrud" is dull or unimpressive, because it certainly leaves you with a feeling of the power of Dreyer's vision and the cleverness of his techniques. But it is an aesthetic of alienation applied to a quest for love, so it is hardly surprising when the heroine's tale grinds to a somber conclusion.

Open City - ****
Gertrud - ***1/2

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