The Italian neorealist classic Open City is currently screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center in a new 4K DCP digital restoration, said to be a marked improvement on the previously distributed 35mm prints. (As of this writing, I haven’t seen the new digital version, so I obviously can’t say that it is in fact an improvement, but at the risk of inciting the ongoing film-versus-digital argument, I will say that I’ll take anything over the shoddy, barely visible print I saw a few years ago.) The film’s director, of course, is Roberto Rossellini, a stalwart of European art cinema and one of the key figures in world film. He’s an incredibly important figure who really doesn’t require an introduction, so just skip on down to my five favorite movies from his vast and varied filmography.
5. Germany, Year Zero (1948) The most harrowing and nihilistic of the director’s early films, this devastating drama capped off Rossellini’s vaunted War Trilogy. It’s a sort of stylistic reset that put a bow on his neorealist phase. The final scenes, of the child protagonist wandering a bombed-out Berlin, are among Rossellini’s most poetic.
4. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) Rossellini’s interest in extracting the humanist qualities out of Western religion spanned his whole career. The Flowers of St. Francis is easily his most “religious” film, a contemplative exploration of Christianity’s ethical tenets that’s far more abstract and theoretical than the historiographical nature of his later work.
3. Stromboli (1949) This is, of course, the key film in the Rossellini-Bergman myth. But it’s also much more than that—Rossellini’s first foray into truly “modern” filmmaking, as well as a raw feminist document. Like he did with many of his films, the director encapsulated Stromboli‘s entire essence during the final scene in a single, beautiful image.
2. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) The Rossellini film that’s least like the others, and all the more fascinating for it. His methods are essentially the same—location shooting, modest camerawork, long shots—but as the director waded into a new phase, begun after he famously claimed cinema was dead, he reoriented his approach and moved to television in search of no less than “mankind’s path in search of truth.” The resultant phase, punctuated by this masterpiece, is among cinema’s most intriguing and transformative swan songs.
1. Voyage to Italy (1954) All roads may lead to Open City, but since its initial release Voyage to Italy has emerged as perhaps the key film of the modern era. It’s the first in what Jacques Rivette described as “home movies”: a commingling of a filmmaker’s personal, political, aesthetic, autobiographic, and philosophical interests. It’s a stylistic influence on pretty much every major figure in European art cinema (Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni, Pasolini, Ingmar Bergman, Milos Forman, Ermanno Olmi), and the Pompeii scene still stands as the director’s most inspired moment.