Even though Rome, Open City has the obvious advantages available to the filmmaker, in the sense that any desired sort of reality is open for creation, the rendition that Rossellini produces is one that comes very close to reality. The raw nature of the neorealist technique actually led to a higher level of creativity. The dialectical montage that occurs in the use of mixing in newsreel footage with the main action at times lends a jarring rhythm to the film, but it also lends a sense of authenticity to the events, as the news items verify the factuality of wht appears.
The use of non-professional actors is another tool that Rossellini uses to boost the verisimilitude of the film. By using actors with whom the audience is not familiar, or by simply inserting local people into roles in the movie, the director pushes the film more toward documentary than story; the audience members assume that the characters are really a part of what is going on. In the 2012 movie Bernie, for example, the parade of non-professional actors who give commentary on the story make the film fit within the true crime genre more authentically.
In Rome, Open City, the everyday life is Rome under Nazi occupations. The American liberators, at that point in the story, are no more real than the Roman gods; the soldiers who accompany Pina ask her if the Americans “really exist” out there. It is the struggles of the resistance against Hitler’s machine that occupies the story, and the pull and push between American-British alliance and the Italian Resistance takes center stage. Because the Allies took so much time to free all of Italy from the Nazis, they had plenty of time to get revenge against partisans in the sections of Italy that they controlled; even as they slowly retreated, they were able to eradicate the communists as they left. Those who remained were a populace that had been abandoned without any sort of structure or social net. The deeds of the children and the Resistance provide the only social organization after the retreat of the Nazis, and in the days before the arrival of the Allied forces, life was quite different, as the coming change in social order had not yet happened, and most existence was chaos without the iron fist of Mussolini.
While this is certainly a situation ripe for melodrama, the documentary sensibility dominates the film. The idea that the Allied intermingled with the Italian populace and suffered along with them, even joining and dying for the advancement of the Resistance, does not quite square with the historical information (and especially with the apathetic interpretation that Joseph Heller brought to this point in history in Catch-22), but it is close enough to the cultural memory of the war that it ultimately succeeds. Ironically, the movie was panned at its first festival appearance; however, its international reception led the Italian cinema analysts to reconsider their opinion and, later, to give Rossellini his due as a pioneer in Italian film. By making a story resemble a documentary, he opened the door to many other projects designed to write a script that has a desired outcome, while making it look like research.
Long shots in movies tend to build suspense for the viewer, both on the level of plot and emotion. Cuts give the audience the ability to take a figurative breath, as the action moves to another scene – or at least the perspective shifts. Long shots can be awkward, as an argument builds to a crescendo; they can also show scenes in which a character faces extreme peril. Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope is one of the more dramatic examples of the use of the long or extended take, as the whole film is done in ten takes. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, some of the most effective extended takes occur when the group is heading into the woods, or when there is some sort of emotional emphasis. The closing scene, when Aguirre is surrounded by monkeys, the last of his party to remain alive, is a particularly withering extended take, as the viewer is worn down by the horror of what Aguirre has become.
The extremely long shot is another element of this film. Many of Herzog’s films emphasize the role of the landscape, and Aguirre is no exception. As the expedition moves down the river, the cameras are set on wooden rafts in the middle of the river as well. Every time the expedition winds around a bend, the technical mastery of the camera operators is made apparent. At the beginning, the expedition is seen through a series of very long shots, winding its way down the slope of the mountains, moving in fog toward the river banks. The purpose of the long shot is to give a sense of the ordeal that is to come, and to give a sense of epic scope to what is about to happen.
The use of these two techniques shows the primary tension at work in the film. On the one hand, this is definitely an epic tale, as any story about exploring a new continent would be. The quest that all of the explorers undertook as they went about defining the New World had the potential to be heroic – and definitely was life-changing, not only for the explorers but those indigenous peoples whom the explorers found. It is the interaction with these indigenous peoples that would end up providing the tension – for in their quest to conquer, the explorers had to railroad the rights of the peoples who they found there. This took the form of forced conversion, in many cases, and outright subjugation. And so the sense of the epic must be mixed with a sense of outrage or suspense. All of Aguirre’s heroic aspirations come from within; they are narcissistic in nature. So when he and his crew wind their way down the river, they are bringing a tragic end to the way of life to the peoples whom they will encounter. Many of the indigenous people in America would fall victim to the diseases that the Europeans had developed immunity for; many other indigenous people would be slain when they took umbrage at the incursion of Europeans on their soil. The human collateral costs in the colonization of the Americas sound the drumbeat that echoes throughout this movie; the tension that builds within each long scene serves as a reminder for the viewer.
As in any effective film, the relationship between form and content in 400 Blows is crucial for the experience of the viewer. In addition to the camera movements that mark this film as a part of the French New Wave movement, there are several other techniques that Truffaut uses to make his film a work of art.
One of the important techniques that Truffaut uses is cinema verite – instead of feeling like a movie script, there are many parts of this film that feel like a simple documentary about life. Truffaut uses mise-en-scene to make the audience do its own interpretation of each scene, finding meaning after meaning. Consider the similarities that Antoine and his mother share, particularly in their sense of feeling trapped. In one of the set pieces, Antoine is sitting on an amusement park ride, looking up at the people around him. The angle of the camera is from a lower perspective, making the audience feel as though they are on his shoes. The claustrophobia that Antoine feels when surrounded by these people also affects the viewer – who also feels confined. Antoine’s mother sits, in a different scene, with her own reflection all about her. This clever use of camera angles shows how confined she feels by her moral malaise. Like Antoine, she cannot think of a way out.
Another clever film technique is the use of swift cuts to juxtapose different elements of the film for thematic purposes. One of the ideas in this film is the hypocrisy that adults often show in the modern world, often showing less wisdom and maturity than their own kids. Antoine is shown at the paper mill, where he has to sleep, making his bed; in the next scene, his mother is yelling at his father in an immature way. The implication of this cut is that age does not necessarily bring wisdom; in fact, age may corrode wisdom. It is transitions like this that bring the theme to the reader.
The ending of 400 Blows is particularly interesting, in the sense that it is completely ambiguous. Antoine has run away from his reformatory and is on the beach. The camera zooms in to focus on his face, and then we get the freeze frame. The audience does not find out whether Antoine is caught and forced to return, or whether he runs away and finds a life somewhere else. What adds to the ambiguity is the diversity of interpretations of his facial expression. Because of the neutrality of his expression, one might think that he is happy, hopeful, or even scared – and that interpretation will be informed by how one views his character throughout the movie. The expression itself, though, does not help much as far as explicitly identifying his mood. Ambiguous endings are a risk for film directors, as most film viewers tend to want closure to the stories they see. While not wrapping things up gives 400 Blows more of a documentary feel, it also leaves the plot open for discussion, similar to the ending of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, in which the villain ends up walking away down a street, albeit suffering from a compound fracture in his arm. The audience does not find out whether or not he is caught for his crimes. Ultimately, this uncertainty as to the outcome of Antoine’s story mirrors the uncertainty that he feels about himself and his life throughout the movie, and so is an effective thematic foil.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Dir. Werner Herzog. Perf. Kalus Kinzi, Ruy Guerra. Bonn: Werner
Herzog Filmproduktion, 1972. Film.
Rome, Open City. Dir. Roberto Rossellini. Perf. Anna Magnani, Aldo Fabrizi. Rome: Excelsa Film,
The 400 Blows. Dir. Francois Truffaut. Perf. Jean-Pierre Leaud, Albert Remy, Claire Maurier.
Paris: Les Films du Carrosse, 1959. Film.