Developed in Rome during the Nazi occupation, shot in the Eternal City shortly after the Nazi withdrawal, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City stunned audiences the world over who saw in it an unmediated authenticity more evocative of the documentary quality of wartime newsreels than of the artificiality of earlier, more conventional WWII dramas.
It wasn’t cinéma vérité, but it was clearly something new, and in time there was a name for it, neorealism. In retrospect, Rome Open City was a sort of transitional film, combining elements of what would be called Italian neorealism with elements of traditional studio melodrama, but it was new enough to put neorealism on the map.
Scenes were shot on sets, but Rossellini also made use of still war-torn Roman streets that could never have been duplicated in studios, with rubble-strewn alleys and scarred buildings. A few spaces, such as the triangular stairwell in an apartment building, become so familiar that we feel we know exactly where and how the action unfolds.
Professional actors played a number of the leading roles, including Anna Magnani as the pregnant bride-to-be Pina and Aldo Fabrizi as the heroic priest Don Pietro, but many of the anonymous players could be said to be playing themselves, and scenes like the looting of the bakery are hardly Hollywood-type contrivance.
The leading Nazi figures — brutal Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), the predatory Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti) — are stereotyped villains, decadent and subtly sexually depraved (in contrast to fertile Pina and her virile fiancé (Marcello Pagliero), partisan leader Giorgio Manfredi). But there’s nothing inauthentic about the rank-and-file stormtroopers in the film’s big set piece, the rastrellamento or military sweep of Pina’s apartment building, in which real Nazi POWs played themselves, recapitulating the tactics they had carried out in reality months earlier.
Filmstock was scrounged or acquired on the black market, including some from captured German stores, though with less variability than was once believed. Inconsistent brightness and contrast, previously attributed to different types of film, was more the result of poor processing — or wear and tear on degraded film elements, as the recent restoration of the Criterion edition startlingly illustrates.
The moral heart of the story, co-written Rossellini and Federico Fellini, is its humanistic celebration of the solidarity uniting all manner of Italian citizens — ordinary civilians like Pina, Communist partisans like her fiancé Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), monarchists like the unseen forces of Badoglio, clergy like Don Pietro, and even children like Pina’s boy Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) — against the racist reign of terror represented by the Nazis. The engagement of the Communist Manfredi and the less-than-devout but still Catholic Pina, who plan to be married by Don Pietro rather than a Fascist official, is a dramatic token of this solidarity.
The film introduces Don Pietro on a buffoonish note, somewhat ineffectually refereeing a boys’ soccer game and getting beaned by the ball when distracted. Later, in an amusing but contrived moment, Don Pietro stops at a shop to pick up money and smuggle it to the resistance movement, where he uncomfortably contemplates a small statue of St. Rocco a bit too closely juxtaposed with another statue of a voluptuous nude, and has to make two adjustments before he is satisfied that the saint’s chastity is suitably honored.
As the film goes on, though, the priest becomes an increasingly heroic figure, relying on his clerical privileges to go about resistance business even after curfew. In the rastrellamento scene at Pina’s apartment building, Don Pietro boldly walks past Nazi soldiers into the evacuated building, on the pretext of administering the anointing of the sick to a terminally ill man, but in fact intending to prevent the rabble-rousing boy upstairs from coming to grief by attacking the Nazis with contraband weapons. Though the scene ends on another comic note, the priest’s coolness under pressure is established — and when he and other resistance figures are arrested, Don Pietro’s coolness becomes the rock-like moral resolve of a martyr in his last trial.
In a key exchange in the Nazi headquarters, while Manfredi is being tortured in the next room, Major Bergmann tries to turn Don Pietro against Manfredi: “He is a subversive and an atheist — your enemy.”
“I am a Catholic priest,” Don Pietro replies calmly. “I believe that anyone fighting for justice and liberty walks in the ways of the Lord. And the ways of the Lord are infinite.” This “baptism” of the atheist partisan leader is heightened as Manfredi’s stripped and beaten body is pressed cruciform against the wall, a secular Christ figure.
In the end, when the priest placidly predicts that Manfredi won’t talk — adding that he will pray for him — the conflict between the Nazi and Catholic worldviews comes to a head in the silence of a Marxist partisan. “I’ve got a man who must talk before dawn,” Bergmann confides to an older officer, Hartmann, “and a priest who’s praying for him.” When Hartmann inquires whether Manfredi might not talk, Bergmann shoots back, “That would mean that an Italian is as good as a German! It would mean there’s no difference in the blood of a slave race and a master race! What would be the point of our struggle?”
Hartmann, though, has seen too much to accept the party line. He fought in the first World War; he saw French patriots die without talking. “We Germans simply refuse to realize that people want to be free,” he tells the scandalized Bergmann.
Don Pietro’s faith, and the stubborn Catholic sensibilities of the Italian soldiers in the climactic scene, give a triumphant sense of spiritual uplift to what would otherwise be a merely downbeat, defiant finale. Religious, moral and political themes intertwine to the end: The boys watching outside the fence whistle a partisan tune, either to rattle the soldiers or to encourage the priest, who uses extra seconds of grace to whisper the oft-repeated words of forgiveness first uttered from the cross. The final shot prominently features Saint Peter’s Basilica — San Pietro, named for the apostle declared to be a rock — on the horizon over the boys as they go on their way, the next generation in the struggle for justice and liberty.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.