Roma Città Libera Review

Rome in 1946, just after the WWII liberation of the city by American troops, is a city in disarray, its inhabitants disillusioned, lost and struggling to exist. The conditions nevertheless proved to be fertile ground for Italian filmmakers, seeing the immergence of neorealist cinema, which thrived on the dark dramas of lives gone astray. Perhaps the most emblematic and influential films of neorealismo from this period is Roberto Rossellini’s Roma Città Aperta (“Rome Open City”) (1945), a film that was such a success that Marcello Pagliero renamed his film, originally to be titled “La Notte Porta Consiglio” (“The Night Brings Wisdom”), as Roma Città Libera (“Rome, Free City”).

Although it doesn’t directly belong to the neorealist movement of films, the whole look of Roma Città Libera fits in well with the whole sense of the period - filmed in stark black and white, entirely at night in rundown apartments, backstreet bars, gambling dens and narrow streets that bear the slogans of the political climate of the time. The characters certainly fit the bill, the opening scene showing a young man (Andrea Checchi) alone in his apartment and at the end of his tether, scrawling the word “Basta” (“Enough”) on the mirror and preparing to shoot himself in the head, only to be prevented from committing suicide by a burglar (Nando Bruno) who has been waiting to break into his room. These are common of the types of ordinary people at the bottom of the social order, whose lives have been made unbearable by the conditions of the times. One has decided he has had enough and is about to end it all, the other has already been there and has found a way to survive. The thief convinces the young man to follow him out onto the streets to see what pickings can be found.

In the neighbouring apartment is another couple of people similarly struggling with the everyday difficulties of life. A young woman (Valentina Cortese) works constantly on her typewriter (to the annoyance of the young man next door), trying to earn enough money to pay her landlady who is demanding the rent. Her friend knows of better ways of earning a living, taking advantage of the influx of American troops in the city, by entertaining them as a singer in a nightclub and earning extra money as a prostitute. She convinces her friend to join her out on the street, but escaping from a police raid on her first night, she runs into another shady couple, the young man and the burglar from next door, who have just picked up a pearl necklace from a man they have mugged on the street.

Following these characters whose lives have reached their lowest ebb down those darkened alleys and war-torn streets, the events of Roma Città Libera take place over the course of a single night and are permanently shrouded in darkness and shadow. The air of pessimism that one would expect from such circumstances however is mollified by a rather contrived plot involving the stolen pearl necklace, which, passing from hand to hand, links the various characters together. Even the dialogue, delightfully hard-bitten, bears an edge of optimism - “Life is hard, but it’s beautiful for those who know how to live it”, and “The world isn’t so ugly… well… maybe it is ugly, but you can always find a corner of paradise”. This edge of romanticism sets the film apart from the neorealist films of the period and closer to the French poetic realism Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert and films like Hôtel Du Nord.

The poetic realism aspect of the film is best incarnated in the form of the “distinguished gentleman”, played by Vittorio de Sica - the director of the classics Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, whose neorealism also had a contradictory edge of poetic romanticism. De Sica plays an important political minister, who has lost his memory and is wandering the streets. I don’t know if there is any political allegory in his circumstances, but he remains a fascinating presence in the film, adding something elusive, dignified and honest to the scenes he is in - a poetic quality that is at odds with the gambling dens and deserted nightclubs. De Sica’s performance is marvellous then and the principal pleasure of the film, although Nino Rota’s music and signature tune sung at the nightclub also lend the film considerable presence (the composer would re-use the music in Fellini’s I Vitelloni in 1953). It’s these qualities that win through in the film and bring about its redemptive conclusions at the end of the night.

Roma Città Libera is released in the US by No Shame. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, the DVD is Region 1 encoded and it is in NTSC format.

Digitally remastered from the original 35mm vault negative, the picture quality here is impressive, particularly for a 60 year old “lost film”. There are a strong range of greyscale tones and reasonably good detail, although the image has just a touch of softness. There is a slight flicker in brightness levels occasionally, but generally, the brightness and contrast of the image are stable and constant. It is slightly on the dark side and perhaps a little too highly contrasted. There are scarcely any marks or damage to the print, with only the occasional scratch evident at the end of film reels. One particular scene shows serious tramline scratch damage, but from the way the film is edited, it seems clear that this is on the actual film negative. The same marks are visible even on the trailer for the film.

The quality of the audio track is variable, but judging from the interview in the extra features, it seems that Italian filmmakers had to make do with little in the way of sound-recording equipment in the post-war period (and perhaps explain Italian cinema’s traditional dependence on post-sync dubbing). Any flaws in the quality of the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio mix are therefore probably inherent in the original materials. Nonetheless, although there is some slight dullness, some clicks and hiss on the track, it is reasonably clear, trouble-free and audible throughout.

English subtitles are provided and are optional. They are unfortunately in a yellow font, which is a big no-no for black and white films. They aren’t too distracting here, the colour not too bright, the font thin and the titles reasonably sized and placed, but they really ought to be in white.

The extra features on the disc contain an interview with screenwriter and assistant director Luigi Filippo D’Amico, carefully titled A Life In Movies (23:04) on account of the rambling nature of the reminiscences, the bewildering lists of names referred to and the director’s professed dislike of the actual film. Nonetheless it’s consequently refreshingly honest and provides some good information and anecdotes on the characters and filmmaking methods of the period. Unearthed (6:55) however is a much more informative account by historian Oreste De Fornari, whose opinions on the film I found myself in total agreement with. The excellent Original Italian Trailer (2:59) is imaginatively put together in the form of a newspaper report, emphasising the social relevance of the subject matter. The liner notes that come with the DVD are less descriptive or analytical of the film and rather more geared around putting the film in the context of those who worked on it, with extensive listings of all their other works, with particular attention deservedly given over to Vittorio De Sica and Nino Rota.

It is perhaps unfortunate that an attempt was made by renaming the film to associate it with Roberto Rossellini’s classic of neorealism, because Roma Città Libera can’t really live up to the expectations suggested by its title. It consequently did not do well in the box office on its release and has been all but forgotten in the years that followed, only being recognised in France where its poetic realism qualities were better appreciated, granting it a cult status. It’s in those terms that the film should be approached, as an intriguing “lost film”, that is worthy of attention for the names associated with it, with a script by Ennio Flaiano, Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Cesare Zavattini, a fine performance from Vittorio de Sica and a beautiful score by Nino Rota. There is merit also in the transfer of the film to DVD by No Shame, who have found the best possible elements for the film and present it well, with informative extra features and liner notes.

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