Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta)

Italy (1945) Dir. Roberto Rossellini

For many De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is considered the starting point for discovering Italian cinema’s Neo Realism movement. But if you want to see the true launching pad for the subgenre, it almost assuredly has to be this powerful dramatisation of the real life war efforts of a Catholic priest and Roman freedom fighters.

German occupied Rome in 1944 and the Nazis are on the hunt for Resistance leader Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), who evades capture and hides at the apartment block of resistance member Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet). Arriving on the eve of Francesco’s wedding to his pregnant girlfriend Pina (Anna Magnani), Giorgio contacts Catholic priest and Resistance sympathiser Don Pietro Pellegrin (Aldo Fabrizi) to pass on messages to the other members.

Unbeknownst to Giorgio, his cabaret performer girlfriend Marina (Maria Michi), whom he had tried to keep away from his activities, is being tacitly seduced by a German spy Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti). Meanwhile the local kids, including Pina’s son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), have been string bombs to attack the Nazis, their actions eventually attraction the attention of the Gestapo and in turn, leading them to Giorgio.

Possibly the most remarkable fact about Rome, Open City is that it was made at all. The fascist regime and World War II had all but destroyed the Italian film industry and money to fund films was scarce. Reports vary on the film’s genesis – some say Rossellini sold most of his possessions to fund it, others claim it was financed by a wealthy old lady interested in making a documentary about real life priest Don Pieto Morosini.

A second documentary about the Roman children’s contributions to the fight against the Nazis was also proposed, changing the project to a feature length drama instead. Inspired as well by the tale of Teresa Gullace, an Italian woman shot by the Germans, Rossellini began writing the script with future filmmaker Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei, later to also collaborate with De Sica.

With no film stock available, Rossellini was forced to shoot on old scraps he and his crew could get their hands on, which inhibited such production purposes as checking the rushes and consistent lighting due to the different types of stock. Modern remastered prints have rectified this belying any signs of these technical handicaps.

The story is divided into two parts – the first dealing exclusively with the local community under threat of the Nazis, the second detailing the aftermath of their actions and the true extent of the German’s evil campaign. The first half is well paced, lively and bristles with charm despite the subject matter, largely through the infectious attitudes of the Italian mamas and their feisty offspring.

Rossellini is able to suffuse the mood with occasional cheeky humour, usually involving Don Pietro and the boys. Unintentional giggles of nostalgic familiarity may arise from long eroded domestic sights as a befuddled baby sitting on his potty in the middle of a room! Viewed today, this can be read as celebrating the indomitable spirit of defiance shared by civilians across Europe during the war, and just as easily could have been set in the East End of London.

But the humour isn’t to last and with one major character killed at the halfway mark in the darkest and most emotional scene of the entire film, this brief but jarring moment serving to remind us that “war” and “happy endings” are seldom bed fellows. Fast forward to the second half and the tone is now very film noir in its structure and content, the story now revealing the duplicity and betrayal that seals the fate for those on the wrong side of the line.

Clocking in at just under 100 minutes means of lot of scrap stock had to be found, making the film’s completion even more of an achievement but the results are undoubtedly worth it. Shooting on a meagre budget and with time against it has caused many to bemoan the lack of style in the camerawork but this gave rise to the realism aspect of the ensuing movement which would later define Italian cinema.

In fact, the camerawork is very credible, most notably in the scenes set in the apartment block staircase. Shot from above and below, chaos and tension are created in following the cast navigating the spiralling structure. One memorable scene sees Don Pietro and Marcello enter the Nazi guarded building under false pretences to prevent a junior anarchist from detonating his bombs in race against time to avoid being caught.

Rossellini may have been working from a patriotic perspective in as much as honouring the efforts of a few of his country’s unsung heroes, and the portrayal of the Nazis is largely without nuance. Major Bergmann (Harry Feist) is the central authority figure and while devoted to his cause, at least offers the rebels a chance to atone before torturing them. Only one grizzled Nazi veteran has the gall to question the ideals of the so-called Master Race, concluding they are really just weak bullies.

It is rare for a film shot during the war period, albeit in its dying days, to include such charity of balance but this doesn’t lessen the impact of the atrocities meted out by the Nazis, and the closing shot is a lingering reminder of this. Baring in mind when this came out, Italian audiences didn’t want reminding, and the film wasn’t warmly received until its reputation grew internationally.

True to the neo-realist ethos, many of the cast were non-professionals but they blended comfortably with the pros, including Anna Magnani delivering another incendiary performance. Aldo Fabrizi is also on impressive form as Don Pietro, somewhat comedic in his equanimity but the true heart of the story.

Whether the Italian neo-realist movement was defined by De Sica et al is subjective; what isn’t is that Rome, Open City provides the DNA. This is an urgent, vital piece of cinema regardless of any category you want to place it in.

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