La città si difende (Pietro Germi , 1951)

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A surprisingly little talked-about film, Four Ways Out / La città si difende blends neorealism and film noir influences with somewhat uneven results.

Four amateur robbers pull a heist during a football match before splitting with bagfuls of cash. With their nerves frayed by the experience and seemingly the whole city against them, will these militant paupers live to enjoy their new-found wealth? The fact that, despite their misery, they’re not devoid of compassion, works against these would-be gangsters. Each time one of the robbers behaves humanely, the consequences are grave, with the most intelligent gang member meeting a particularly nasty end. Speaking of ends: the finale sees a desperate youth give in to the mother’s tearful pleading and hand himself over to the solemn and horrifyingly grey cops. Thus, the law at its’ most bureaucratic and the family institute connive to bring yet another doomed generation to its’ knees.

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La città si difende is a an imperfect film, a film at odds with itself but also a fascinating film. It’s not clear who’s side the filmmakers are on: while undeniably a attempt at social criticism, the films sways between sympathy for the robbers and their condemnation.

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Whatever misgivings one might have regarding the overall message, the casting is dead on, from the excellent leads to the bit part players: the stroppy ticket officer on the tram, the creepy lowlifes Paul Muller’s desperate ex-painter gets mixed up with, to the stern, pig-faced cops – every rugged tormented face tells its’ own story.

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La città si difende presents the viewer with a fairly rare opportunity to see the prolific Swiss actor Paul Muller in an early and substantial role. Muller, with his distinctive looks, went on to appear in dozens of genre films, including Jess Franco´s low-budget masterpiece Eugenie De Sade (1971) and the Fantozzi films with Paolo VIllaggio. Muller´s face is the face of European cinema, he has acted alongside such stars as Alain Delon (Plein Soleil) and Ingrid Bergman (Viaggo in Italia), worked with E.M. Salerno and Andrea Bianchi, Umberto Lenzi and Riccardo Freda.

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Cinematographer Carlo Montuori (Bycicle Thieves) and camera operator Goffredo Belissario should have been decorated for their achievement, as technically La città si difende is beyond praise. Knowingly framed and expertly photographed in high-contrast black and white, the film’s visual impact is undeniable. Night scenes in particular are highly atmospheric, the impressively mobile camera capturing terrified characters as they scuttle through nightmarish post-war Rome, dwarfed by the towering blocks of flats.

La città si difende may bot be for everyone  but it’s most definitely cinema.

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