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Pub date November 25, 2008
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Writing about Umberto D (1952), André Bazin located the intrepid beauty of Italian neorealism in its accumulation of small slivers: "The narrative unit is not the episode, the event, the sudden turn of events, or the character of its protagonists; it is the succession of concrete instants of life, no one of which can be said to be more important than another, for their ontological equality destroys drama at its very basis."

The sentence’s movement from careful observation to impassioned ethos is typical of Bazin’s noble endeavor to demonstrate the Italians’ modest profundity. The French critic was no proponent of formalism, but his composite sketch of neorealism — a mixed use of professional and amateur actors, location shooting, long takes, and a situational plotline — remains a given at Cannes.

Looking at the films in the Pacific Film Archive’s series "Moments of Truth," it’s easy enough to see why. Realism is often used as a cover to smuggle ideological biases into narrative, but a movie like Open City (1945) still draws a bracing connection between an economy of means and a strong moral imperative. Filmed in the rubble of Il Duce, the procession of dark apartment corridors and deserted streets submerge suspense into the act of witnessing. Neorealist orthodoxy aside, director Roberto Rossellini surely would have admitted that the truth is a lot more palatable when you have Anna Magnani in the leading role. Her death scene would seem to depart from neorealism in its wrenching montage (and burst of melodramatic strings), but it is Open City‘s most searing breach of moral injustice, around which the quieter scenes of resistance and despair organize their electric charge.

Among the PFA’s selection, I dote most on Il Posto (1961), an ethnography of adolescence that summons vast stores of quotidian melancholy from a backdrop of workaday drudgery. Whenever such a delicate work of neorealism threatens to buckle under the weight of critical piousness, we might look to the French New Wave filmmakers who identified with the Italians more for reasons of intellectual fecundity than partisan rigidity. Jean-Luc Godard and company liked the Hollywood pictures too, of course, but one senses their close affinity to the neorealists in their resourcefulness and flexibility. Instead of film as product, here was film as choice; pictures like Open City and Il Posto may have been branded with ideals of Truth and Reality, but the secret of their success rests in their sense of possibility. *

"Moments of Truth: Italian Cinema Classics"

Nov 29–Dec 21, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249,