With Sicily about to fall into Allied hands and American and British troops threatening moving up the boot of Italy, Fascist overlord Benito Mussolini fell from the heights of power in 1943. In that moment, Italy transformed from ally of Germany to a puppet state controlled and occupied by the Third Reich. Italian director Roberto Rossellini started his career under the fascist regime, churning out propaganda narratives for the reactionary government while secretly filming anti-fascist forces to promote their cause. Almost immediately upon the ouster of German forces from Rome in 1944, Rossellini got to work on the anti-fascist Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945). Set during the German occupation of Italy, the film revolves around an attempt to hide an Italian freedom fighter who has caught the attention of the Gestapo. The movie initially abides by the standard dictums of wartime melodrama as the freedom fighter is hidden by a sympathetic couple and an anti-fascist priest, but as consequences pile up for those involved, the film becomes a stark examination of brutality and courage, as well as the divide between those who serve themselves and those who strive for something larger. The characters in Rome, Open City are based on real life persons (indeed the project started as a documentary), and apparently the film cut too close to the bone for post-war audiences of the day. But while it may have fizzled at the Italian box office, Rossellini’s reliance on non-professional actors, down and dirty location shooting, and unflinching look at wartime suffering has come to be seen as not just a classic, but the progenitor of an entire style of cinema: Italian neo-realism.
J. – And so we get to add another major player to the yammerverse: Italy. And man, oh man, am I thankful for it. We’ve been largely trapped in a spate of English-language films of late and it has been so refreshing to get some stories told from different view points. And Rome, Open City is absolutely different from other films we have dealt with from the World War II era — perhaps not so surprising given that it comes from a losing country in that conflict. I really want to get into some of the geo-politics at play with this film during the course this yammer, S., because I found that to be a very interesting aspect of the movie and it absolutely colored my viewing (at least in the early going). But since that is a layer beyond the movie itself, I think I’ll start elsewhere.
I found this film to be absolutely gripping, particularly when the plot kicks in after the first 20 minutes or so. I would say that the movie does get out of the gate slowly in its opening scenes, and paints too many characters in strokes that are far too broad. But that’s not necessarily a terrible thing and is certainly not out of the ordinary in a movie of wartime intrigue and plotting, as characters in these sorts of affairs are typically tools for the plot machinations (think The Great Escape). But it would have been nice for a more nuanced portrait of the protagonist to have been drawn. Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) is a prominent member of the anti-fascist underground, he smokes a lot, he’s tough, and he’s rather crap to his girlfriend — that’s about all that we ever learn about him. The film obviously goes out of its way to keep him a mysterious character, but I think it is a failing and is unfortunately symptomatic of a kind of taciturn tough guy that one sees as the hero in a lot of European films. I think the model for these characters is Humphrey Bogart, but most of these replicas miss the charm and charisma that Bogart brings to those roles. Sure, you don’t learn much about Rick Blaine in Casablanca, but Bogie makes him a full-fledged human and not just a jaded, anti-fascist quip machine. Thankfully, Rome, Open City gives nearly as much screen time and a whole lot more humanity to two other key players: Pina, the pregnant fiance of another anti-fascist (Anna Magnani), and Don Pietro, a jovial priest who is helping subvert the German regime (Aldo Fabrizi).
S. – It is an unexpected, yet very effective, strategy to infuse the hero with greatness based largely on the integrity of those who take risks to support him. While that may seem a gamble, the sympathetic characters of Pina and Don Pietro are so skilfully portrayed that there is no question where your loyalty should lie. Anna Magnani delivers a captivating performance as a gutsy woman balancing aiding the resistance with raising her rebellious son, arranging her impending wedding and trying to make ends meet in the occupied city. The local priest is living a double life, attending to his spiritual duties while secretly acting as a courier service for the underground movement, although the strain of his duplicity does occasionally show.
Even before we spend too much time in the company of the despicable Gestapo agents I was thoroughly invested in Pina’s cause. Rossellini creates two relatable, everyday heroes who referee soccer practice and dispense loaves of bread in between taking extraordinary risks under the noses of a brutal enemy. I think it is fitting that the support crew are given recognition here, there is a sense of community in the subversive actions of the apartment building inhabitants where the first half of the film is centred. It sends a strong message that the citizens of Rome still had hope, the Nazis may have nominally been in power but the essence of the locals was far from extinguished.
J. – The first half of the film does play that way, and I think it is assisted in no small part by a sizable chunk of humor. Aldo Fabrizi was a prominent comedic actor, and his roly poly frame and expressive face are excellent comedic instruments and really help humanize the Don Pietro character and make him relatable. They also serve as an excellent cover for his underground activities as part of the anti-fascist resistance, making the most of his role as a churchmen and his benign exterior to take on the Germans. Much the same can be said of Anna Magnani’s performance, which is an excellent mix of grit and exasperation. Pina is good with a quip and ready to stare down the cops and the Nazis, but she’s also clearly frantically nervous about her son and has blistering (and very funny) fights with her sister.
And the film in general walks this fine line between cat-and-mouse thriller and comedy in its early stages. The first half of the movie is a series of near misses for the anti-fascist characters, with each scene ultimately culminating in success and usually a laugh: The children blow up a Nazi gasoline truck, only to get spanked by their parents; the good guys escape down a passage because a Nazi soldier looks up some women’s dresses rather than searching the building, etc. This dynamic is perhaps best exemplified by the excellent scene in which Don Pietro and Pina’s son Marcello (who is dressed as an altar boy) race into the tenement to keep the fascists from finding a cache of weapons. It is wonderfully tense and exciting, but it too ends with a frying pan-centric comedic denouement straight out of a cartoon (or The Great Dictator). Had the film continued on in this fashion I think it would have been a solid clockwork thriller, essentially a martial heist film — but instead, Rome, Open City pivots in an instant and goes someplace much deeper and infinitely darker. [We don’t usually bother with spoiler warnings — I mean, this film is nearly 70 years old — but seriously, stop now if you haven’t seen this movie and are interested in doing so]
S. – The tone changes abruptly with the callous death of Pina. It is like a sharp correction in the narrative, which has wandered away from reality into a realm where you started to believe everything was going to be okay. It is a powerful scene and a graphic reminder that trouble-makers will be shot. No pleading for your cause, no winning over the enemy with your spunk and charisma. Being a good guy doesn’t mean you are any more likely to win in this scenario where the odds are already severely stacked against you, and that is an important truth that most movies ignore. And because this was based on historical events it would have been a real disservice to ignore these horrible things, it would be like claiming that if these people were a bit smarter or a bit braver then everything would have worked out.
As a result, Rome, Open City is confronting and, to me, felt far more real and upsetting than the other war-based list movies we have seen so far. I’m talking Passion of Joan of Arc anxiety-levels. The second half of the film sees our hero and Don Pietro in Nazi hands and it is grim territory indeed. The movie draws heavily on real events, making the treatment of the captive resistance leader truly awful to watch. One of the most interesting scenes occurs when the Nazi officers are lounging in a comfortable room right next-door to where torture is being dished out and an officer speaks his mind about the methods the Nazis are using to expand their power. With an air of fatigued despair he observes that all they do is leave bodies in their wake. However, we later see that despite his reservations during his down-time this man is still ruthlessly efficient while on the job. It is bleak viewing and while the defiance of the citizens is in evidence until the end, being in the right does not save them.
J. – If you actually think about it, the turn in the film isn’t entirely unanticipated, as the Germans do seem to really be on top of things when it comes to tracking down Giorgio, but the events of the first part of the film serve as something of a chipper smokescreen concealing what it to come. And that’s a good thing, because it gives us time to enjoy Pina’s company and to feel the comfort of laughter and one-upping the bad guys. So when the rug does get pulled out from under the viewer, you hit the ground hard. But even then, you think, “Well, I’ve seen plenty of war/espionage films — a symbolic character always dies and this provides the impetus for the hero to fulfill his mission.”
I kept expecting there to be some development that was going to save Giorgio and Don Pietro, which I think is a lingering aftereffect of the tone from the first half of the film. This insistent belief in my head added immensely to the tension of the second half of the movie as I kept waiting for the cavalry to arrive. Indeed, when the film let’s Pina’s husband Francesco (played by Francesco Grandjacque) escape the Gestapo, I was positive that this was the prelude to a rescue. So there was a masterful use of tension, misdirection, and just plain gritty darkness in the last portion of the movie that kept me utterly in thrall. I wonder if this film would hold up as well on a second viewing with that tension drained from the picture? If it does, I would have to chalk it up to Fabrizi’s performance as Don Pietro. I think your mention of Joan of Arc was very apt, not so much because of the brutal interrogation but for the waves of emotion and suffering that pass over the face of Don Pietro. His reactions to the Gestapo and the absolutely savage torture inflicted on Giorgio are what make these final scenes something emotionally engaging rather than cruelly repellent.
S. – Rome, Open City doesn’t leave you entirely bereft, there is the defiant whistling of the gaggle of local children who let Don Pietro know he is not entirely alone in his last moments, but it is a slim sliver of comfort. I generally have a very low tolerance for movie violence and the darkness of the film’s subject matter is undeniable, yet I was engaged throughout. I’ve been trying to figure out what this film has that prevents it from being a turn-off. I can only put it down to the life that was breathed into the central characters having compensated for the bleak territory traversed. Through having such vital and admirable people die at the hands of the Nazis I feel like respect was paid to the many people who suffered through this period. The enemy was too strong and countless people were crushed under its wheels. Rosellini has brought humanity and empathy to an event that for all the abhorrent elements deserves to be remembered.
J. – I absolutely agree with you there, S. But I must confess that there was an aspect of the film that did take me out of things for a bit, and it goes back to the politics I mentioned at the start of this yammer. I feel like there was an apologist element to this film that didn’t quite sit well with me. Italy was a fascist state (hell, the term fascism is derived from an Italian word) and an ally of the Nazis. While I appreciate that there were anti-fascist forces in Italy — and that many plot points in the film are based on real events — there is something disingenuous about this story of Italians against Nazis. The Italian fascists are little more than an afterthought here and the movie in some ways feels like a desperate PR ploy to refashion the perception of Italy after the fall of the fascists — “See, we suffered under the Nazis too!” And I think that was a big reason for an aspect of the film that I know you didn’t care for, S.: the largely one-dimensional villains. Personally, I don’t mind Nazis being depicted as pure evil, but the film does almost go into moustache-twirling territory at times.
But perhaps Rossellini’s strenuous efforts to distance the Italians from the Germans is what makes Rome, Open City such a radically different experience from the other wartime films we have watched. Sure, the Nazis have been painted as the embodiment of evil in the American and British films we have seen, but that evil is usually spoken of or implied, never shown. Italy, however, could be counted among the bad guys in this global conflict, so Rossellini apparently was not content to simply admit that their ally was evil. He had to show that cruelty in all its horror to differentiate the Germans from his own people. And in that final scene he makes an explicit statement with the children marching back from the execution ground, telling the world that whatever Italy’s mistakes, the next generation looked up to the good men. I think it was a sincere message of hope, but the potential is there to view it through a more cynical, self-serving lens.