Film lovers around the world will get caught up in “Celluloid,” a fairly faithful rendition of how Roberto Rossellini made “Rome Open City,” the film that launched Italian neorealism after the war. Though not an inspired picture, educated auds will find it engrossing as they root for the director and his crew to overcome incredible obstacles and make film history. Local distrib Istituto Luce has been able to mount only a skeleton release, boding ill for pic’s Italian fortunes, but it ought to be scooped up for fests and offshore TV.
Veteran helmer Carlo Lizzani, screenwriters Furio Scarpelli and Ugo Pirro, and leading thesp Giancarlo Giannini are of an age to have had firsthand dealings with the heroes of neorealism, while remainder of the cast have obviously done their homework on the period and characters they play. Fifty years have passed, however, and some of the details are already subject to contradictory memories. (Compare the recent docu on Jone Tuzzi, who did uncredited editing on the film, in which she recalls “shooting” scenes in Rossellini’s absence.)
According to “Celluloid,””Open City” originates when Rossellini (Massimo Ghini) and scriptwriter Sergio Amidei (Giannini) decide to make a film about Rome under the German occupation. A flamboyant producer of the time (Massimo Dapporto) is horrified by the rushes and walks out midfilm. A countess (pop singer Milva) proves an illusory investor, and Rossellini finishes the shoot by the skin of his teeth with a third producer.
The search for the actors is good fun: Aldo Fabrizi (Antonello Fassari), Rossellini’s choice to play the humane priest, is a famous standup vaudeville comic, and Anna Magnani (Lina Sastri) is equally well-known as a cabaret singer and actress. With the help of a young Federico Fellini (Francesco Siciliano) and a lot of smooth talk, Rossellini persuades them to work for peanuts. Maria Michi (Anna Falchi), Amidei’s young lover, is recruited for the role of the traitor Marina, while other roles are casually filled by non-pros whose looks Rossellini likes.
Cast plays a decisive role in making the film work. Giannini is splendid as the fiery-tempered Amidei,whose moods swing violently while his staunch ethical commitment to his art remains steadfast. Falchi is the best physical match to the role, giving Michi a gentle, loving, feminine exterior and a solid core. As Rossellini, Ghini is so busy trying to put the film together that he lacks the intimate moments that would unveil his personality.
As likable as pic is, there is something small-scale and prosaic about the way Lizzani is content to approximate famous real-life characters. Most jarring example is Sastri, who has Magnani’s gestures down pat, but who has not bothered to dye her hair, fill out her figure or deepen her voice to mime the great, throaty actress. Still, Sastri redeems herself in a convincing reading of Magnani’s emotional vulnerability.
Christopher Walken amuses in a small cameo as Rod Geiger, the U.S. lieutenant stationed in Rome who stumbles across the set because Rossellini is stealing electricity from an American USO center. Geiger later was to play a decisive role in releasing the film in the States, where it ran for 21 consecutive months at New York’s World Theater in 1946, and affirmed Italian neorealism as the winning arthouse trend of the decade.