Although one certainly cannot dismiss the impact of World War II on the United States, it’s an order of magnitude more shocking to witness the devastation wrought across Europe. For all our suffering, we could come home to a country that remained largely untouched by large-scale conflict. Those in Europe, however, were already home. Roberto Rossellini’s stark neorealist drama Rome, Open City is a snapshot of Rome in the days immediately proceeding the Second World War. Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship collapsed in 1943. Rome was liberated from the Nazis in June of 1944. Two months later, Rossellini was at work on Rome, Open City. The film’s proximity to the liberation of Italy was partially responsible for its downfall at the box office. Italian moviegoers, reeling from the conflict, were not prepared for or welcoming to a film that so unflinchingly examined the hardships of the conflict. They saw it around them every day, had just finished living it themselves. There was no need for sets, no call for dressing the scene. Occupation and liberation left the city in ruins. Rossellini was a native Roman, and he’d grown up in the cinema house before the war. His father, who owned a construction company, built the first theater in the city, and one of the trade-offs was that his son got a free lifetime pass to the movies.
Enamored by the flickering shadows, Rossellini studied every aspect of moviemaking. He eventually made a documentary, then started working on feature films in 1941, his first being The White Ship, followed by A Pilot Returns in 1942 (co-written by a young Michelangelo Antonioni) and The Man with a Cross in 1943. Known collectively as Rossellini’s “Fascist Trilogy,” they were a product of the time and of necessity. Made during Il Duce’s rise to power, there wasn’t much an aspiring filmmaker could get made that wasn’t tinged with propaganda. The end of Mussolini’s reign, and the lifting of Fascist control, allowed Rossellini to a make a film that expressed what he really thought about Fascism.
Everything about the production of Rome, Open City was a DIY affair. There was no film industry in Italy in the days immediately following liberation; how could there be, with so much destroyed, with the economy gutted, and with basic necessities of survival like food, clothing, and shelter being in such supply? Rossellini based the film on a story told to him about a priest named Don Pieto Morosini, who had been executed for aiding the partisans during the occupation. The woman who approached Rossellini about making the movie attempted to finance it as well, but her money only got them so far. Rossellini had to scrounge, shooting with salvaged equipment on cheap film stock, resulting in a documentary style that has since been praised but was really just a function of necessity at the time.
Like everyone living in Rome, the filmmaker also had to contend with a lack of reliable electricity and the fact that Rome’s most prestigious studio, Cinecittà, was temporarily unusable. In addition to everything else, Rossellini ran out of film stock. There simply was none to be had in the war-ravaged city. Luckily, a friend in the US Signal Corps, Rod E. Geiger, had accessed to film that the Corps had discarded, usually because it was damaged in some way. He made a gift of it to Rossellini, who shot the remainder of the film on these scratched, fogged, and marred rolls of film. When it came time to process the film, even that proved a challenge. Many of the film’s physical flaws were introduced not during the shooting or by the film stock, but during the processing, when Rossellini had to make due with old chemicals, old facilities, and inexperienced technicians.
These limitations became the film’s greatest strength, as the crude conditions under which the film was made lend it a street level vitality that would have been unlikely with less meager means. There is a raw, visceral mood to the film. At times, it plays like spontaneously shot newsreel footage, even a home movie. The hunger, the fear, the desperation don’t seem the product of scripting or acting as much as they do a reflection of the pervading mood in the city, captured on film and rendered as a series of disturbing, heartbreaking, grainy black and white images. Rossellini initially planned to make two separate documentary films, one about the priest and the other about children fighting as Partisans against the Nazi occupation. At the suggestion of his friend Federico Fellini and screenwriter Sergio Amidei, Rossellini wove the two factual stories into one semi-factual feature film. The initial idea to shoot the film as a documentary, coupled with Rossellini’s own background as a documentary filmmaker and the difficult conditions under which the film was made, lend Rome, Open City a journalistic feel.
Aldo Fabrizi stars as the noble Don Pietro Pellegrini, a Roman priest with sympathies for – if not outright involvement with – the Italian Partisans (after the deposing of Mussolini, Italy declared itself no longer at war with the Allies, leading to a forceful occupation of Rome and other Italian cities by the Nazis; the Partisans were the Italian uprising against the occupation, much the same as the Resistance in France). Anna Magnani stars as Pina, a pregnant woman engaged to a man who becomes increasingly involved with the Partisans. The lives of Don Pietro an Pina, as well as those of her fiancee Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) and his friend in the resistance Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero) become intertwined when Francesco and Pina attempt to hide Giorgio from the Gestapo, involving Don Pietro in the plot. Things go poorly for the band of rebels, but don’t worry; they get even worse. There are few triumphs presented on screen, and one is forced to take solace in the indomitable spirit of humanity in the face of horror (and the fact that the Nazis were eventually defeated) if one wants to walk away from Rome, Open City without being emotionally crushed.
Rossellini’s later war film, Germany Year Zero, paints a more desolate and ruined picture of Europe, but Rome, Open City‘s unflinching portrayal of oppression, murder, and hope in the face of hopelessness makes it a shocking film even if the buildings and landmarks of Rome are more intact than those of, say, London or Berlin. The moments of grief, the instances of disillusionment, are intense. Even though the characters are hastily sketched – much of the film was improvised, with Rossellini’s mood and the conditions of the day determining the direction the film took – they operate within a universally recognizable framework that makes sympathizing with them easy, which further ratchets up the tension tying the film together.
Fabrizi and Magnari are the only two experienced actors of note in the film, the rest of the cast being composed primarily of non actors and “people with interesting faces.” rarely does a lack of experience show, however (which can’t be said for Rossellini’s follow-up, Paisan, in which much of the film’s power is sapped by astoundingly bad acting). Most everyone acquits themselves well, though Magnari and – particularly – Fabrizi lend the film most of its dramatic weight. It’s impossible to say whether or not Rome, Open City would have been as moving and powerful a film had it been made in a more professional manner. Suffice it to say that what we are presented with is a landmark film, not just because it was one of the first films made in Europe to examine the war without being under the yoke of Axis propaganda ministers.