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DVD SAVANT

Roma cittá libera
(La notte porta consiglio)


Roma cittá libera
NoShame
1946 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 81 min. / La notte porta consiglio / Street Date July 25, 2006 / 19.95
Starring Nando Bruno, Andrea Checchi, Valentina Cortese, Marisa Merlini, Gar Moore, Vittorio De Sica
Cinematography Aldo Tonti
Production Design Gastone Medin
Film Editor Giuliana Attenni
Original Music Nino Rota
Written by Ennio Flaiano, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Cesare Zavattini, Pino Mercanti, Marcello Pagliero
Produced by Marcello D'Amico
Written and Directed by Marcello Pagliero

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

We're used to seeing Italian neo-realist films as late as 1948 with sketchy production resources and filmed on variable-quality film stock, looking every bit as primitive as the core classics Paisan and Open City. Roma cittá libera from 1946 exhibits familiar themes of neo-realism yet is a polished product. Perhaps a bit too polished: There's something about its fanciful storyline that negates the screenwriters' image of a Rome beset by crime, vice and corruption.

Director Marcello Pagliero is also no heavyweight. His character work is fine -- especially with the great cast -- but his eye for compositions is weak and he has no flair for the story's action elements. On the other hand, Nino Rota's impressive music score combined with a quartet of great performances makes Roma cittá libera a very pleasant experience. Valentina Cortese is particularly enchanting.

Synopsis:

After the liberation of Rome, a number of people meet in less-than-optimal circumstances. A pickpocket and holdup man (Nando Bruno) stops a depressed man (Andrea Checchi) from committing suicide over an unfaithful and thieving girlfriend (Marisa Merlini). On the streets, they rob a man of a pearl necklace, unaware that it isn't cheap junk; the man was a courier for a gangster who happens to be the girlfriend's new beau. The thief and the young man save a young woman (Valentina Cortese) from being picked up by the police as a prostitute by mistake. In a bar, the trio meets a distinguished but amnesiac man (Vittorio De Sica) who knows he's famous and is supposed to give a speech somewhere, but has forgotten everything else. Seeing the pearls on the young woman's neck, a gangster invites all of them to play at an illegal casino that hides as a psychic research center. While the police scour the city for the missing distinguished gentleman, the gangsters close in on our unsuspecting trio, hoping to recover their stolen pearls.

Roma cittá libera wants to be tough and gritty. Its depressed characters are all turning to sordid lifestyles and the city seems to be a hive of thievery. But the screenplay by such writing greats as Suso Cecchi d'Amico and Cesare Zavattini takes a fanciful attitude to the proceedings, that advances to a rather soft conclusion: "Everything's going to be okay." There's little social connection to the tale, and the whimsical aspects amount only to a few providential coincidences. Its certainly not realistic, and yet there's no fantastic message here either, as in De Sica's superb Miracle in Milan. The attraction is in the likeable and sympathetic characterizations. It's a "meeting cute" story about a would-be suicide and a girl who feels she has no choice but to prostitute herself.

The movie has a fairy-tale attitude toward vice. Versatile thief Nando Bruno robs everybody yet is treated like a benevolent philosopher. Marisa Merlini's treacherous infidelity splits a ring of jewel thieves, but nobody comes to physical harm. The police doggedly chase after the thieves but catch them only because they're also searching for a missing celebrity. The booty, a rich woman's string of pearls, ends up as a decoration in a cathedral.

The story uses one night to bring together two disillusioned young people. Valentina Cortese can't pay the rent or feed herself by typing, and turns to other ideas, as has her roommate. Despondent over his lost girlfriend, Andrea Checchi tries to kill himself, but spends a night stealing with Bruno instead. Although the characters are well defined, the story contrives to spare them any real degradation. Guns are brandished but nobody is shot. Checchi is an almost unwitting accomplice, not a full-fledged thief. The 'good girl' Valentina instinctively turns away from selling her virtue, even when the client is a rich man. We like the characters, and Checchi and Cortese are a marvelous couple, but the story resolutions are far too cute. Even the police raid on the casino turns out to be a weak joke. When the lights come up, all the gamblers are pretending to be conducting a séance.

Master cameraman Aldo Tonti films Roma cittá libera at night on the city streets, a no man's land of thieves and criminals. There are no children in the movie, nor anything to remind us of normal life besides bartenders and cigarette sellers. Director Marcello Pagliero's visuals are rarely more than adequate. He's much better when working with his actors, and brings out a full range of responses. Nando Bruno's easygoing crook manages to give everyone the slip, and makes a series of restrained plays for Valentina Cortese. He offers her some kind of a drug (a pill case) to make her feel better, an indication of his own weakness.

Andrea Checchi (Black Sunday, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) is a credibly confused young man, slowly responding to the hopeful optimism in the young girl he rescues from the cops: "They thought we were a couple." Valentina Cortese (Thieves' Highway) has the plum role. Her typist goes out on the town for trouble, and after a number of reversals naturally finds true love instead. Cortese's screen look hasn't dated in the least; she's a real find.

(Spoilers)

The movie has an interesting attitude toward its MacGuffin, the stolen strings of pearls. Several characters equate money and love in dialogue but the lovers never realize that the pearls aren't cheap imitations. Cortese smiles when the thieves give them to her -- the gesture breaks an emotional depression barrier. The pearls go to fitting ends -- one string adorns the neck of a statue of the Madonna. The other ends up in the gutter, unworthy to adorn the neck of Cortese, who is now in love. Thus our almost-a-prostitute is equated with a holy icon. Billy Wilder would have liked the way this script organizes its elements.

Also given a prominent role is Gar Moore, an expatriate G.I. who, like American USO actress Harriet White, became an Italian peformer in the improvised Paisan made the year before. Moore parlayed his four Italian credits into a brief career in the UK and Hollywood.

Roma cittá libera's most fanciful conceit is the Chaplin-esque role given to guest star Vittorio De Sica, who wanders into the story as a tuxedoed stranger who may be drunk, amnesiac or the victim of a crime. He drifts in and out of the narrative like a good luck charm, claiming the film's few arresting visuals. (spoiler) In the end, he's revealed to be a newly elected government minister -- his associates finally find him after a full night's search. The obvious implication is that the confused and disoriented De Sica represents Italy, fresh from the traumatic war years. De Sica appears to be a good man -- he 'intuits' the nature of thievery in an impromptu oration -- but perhaps he's also an indicator of Italy's shaky new government.


NoShame's DVD of Roma cittá libera is an excellent B&W transfer from elements in terrific shape; if only we could find copies of Paisan looking this good. The only suspicious cut is a hard transition from the opening credits to the body of the show, which indicates the re-titling from the original La notte porta consiglio.

The audio track is in good shape too, which will delight Nino Rota fans. Roma cittá libera has one of his best early scores, which includes a featured song that would be heard again in Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni.

NoShame's interview extras are split across two featurettes. The first is a self-conducted career interview with Luigi Filippo D'Amico, the writer and assistant director of the film and one of its last surviving participants. Noted critic Oreste de Fornari insists on classifying the film as watered-down neo-realism, mostly dismissing it with faint praise. Roma cittá libera may not be an acknowledged classic, but it's certainly entertaining and needs make no apologies. The best thing about de Fornari's input is the glorious Italian poster for This Island Earth on the wall behind him: Cittadino dello Spazio (Citizen of Space).

An original trailer is also included. Richard Harland Smith contributes insightful insert essay notes, rightly placing Roma cittá libera as a production discarded in 1946 but welcome viewing today.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Roma cittá libera rates:
Movie: Very Good / Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Two interview featurettes, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2006





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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