In 1945, Roberto Rossellini took an idea, a limited supply of film stock and an even more limited supply of cash, and created not only a powerful landmark film, but spurred an entire genre, a school of filmmaking that quickly spread throughout the Italian film community and that still exerts great influence on filmmakers worldwide.
Rome Open City (1945) was not the first neo-realist film, but it is the one that gave momentum to the movement, that inspired others to take up this new, visceral and seemingly authentic, almost documentary-like approach to filmmaking. Rossellini used a cast of professionals and amateurs alike and eschewed the studio system and its sound stages for the streets, filming his story of Rome's occupation by the Nazis in real locations, complete with bombed-out buildings.
Criterion has released a restored version of the film, along with Paisan and Germany Year Zero, which together make up Rossellini's "War Trilogy," in a beautiful three-DVD edition, complete with interviews, documentaries, commentaries and a book of essays.
It has been said of Rossellini that his genius was his lack of imagination; his fidelity to simple, direct storytelling and a no-frills approach to production were in stark contrast to standard operating procedure in his native country and in much of the world.
Today, Rome Open City may not seem quite so grittily real as it once did, but its heart and devotion and its utter disregard — both by choice and by necessity — for the niceties of glossy studio filmmaking are as evident as they were 65 years ago. Perhaps a bit more melodramatic than much of the director's later work, it is not without humor and certainly not without warmth. Rossellini was not happy that his technique drew so much attention as the primary goal of his technique was to remain invisible, to keep the focus on the story. Despite the attention his technique still attracts, what shines through in Rossellini's is always its humanity, its enduring moral center and its consistent exploration of the of the unflagging human spirit.
Rossellini's War Trilogy
Another city, another time: Wim Wenders' 'Paris, Texas'
In the opening scenes of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), Harry Dean Stanton, as Travis, wanders the desert, giving no clue as to his destination or his origin. It is only when his brother finds him and attempts to take him back to Los Angeles that the story begins to slowly unspool.
Travis longs for a town, a town he never knew, but which he believes may have been his starting point, the place of his conception. Years ago, he bought a vacant lot with the vague desire of moving his family there. Long after the motivation has faded from memory and events have dramatically altered the course of his life, the dream remains of returning, of starting over, of building something new and sturdy and lasting on that empty and as yet unseen plot of land.
We will only learn the full details of that turn of events in the film's closing scenes, when Travis finally manages to confront his past. The film is a journey of self-discovery, and the journey is not complete when the film ends, but at least some form of healing has begun.
Paris, Texas has recently been released by Criterion in a two-disc edition.
Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard fashioned the screenplay out of the discarded remains of earlier attempts by each man. Beginning with a Shepard story called Motel Chronicles, they scrapped the tale, stripped away the details and started from the dirt, from the landscape and the people who traverse it.
Evocative, mysterious and loaded with emotion. Wenders, like Kieslowski, knows when to simply leave a thing alone, to not attempt to pin it down. Toward the end, in a scene that could have so easily tipped into contrivance, Stanton and Nastassja Kinski make an attempt to explain themselves to each other, and though the words explain much, there is still so much left unsaid, so much suggested or implied or that is simply not meant to be known, to the viewer, the actors or even the characters they portray. The how and the why is so much more difficult to touch than the what, and in Paris, Texas, even the what seems just out of grasp. Wenders' brilliance as a director is that he is not only comfortable with ambiguity, but embraces it.