#497 Rome, Open City
1945 // Italy // Roberto Rossellini
Criterion Collection (LINK)
People expecting an utter “realism” in Rome, Open City as allured by the attached label of the groundbreaking neorealism may find themselves be disappointed by the artificiality of melodrama and the ordinariness of the style. The paradox is they are having a different kind of “realism” in their mind set. Rome, Open City, albeit “cheating”, is nothing but the vessel of embellished truth. A truth born out of urgency and necessity; out of anguish and grief; out of humanity and spiritual strength. It is a film that created by history and in turn it bears as a witness of history.
It is a film that could only be made in 1944, the immediate time after the liberation of the city by the Americans while the war was still on in the rest of Italy. The wounds were still fresh with blood, the memories were still vivid with excruciating pain; the spirits were tenacious with tremendous intensity, the “present” was permeated with hope and energy for reform after Italy was finally liberated from the shadow of Fascism and Nazism, these are the “realism” I find in Rome, Open City, a film that speaks its unique voice even 70 years had passed.
1944 was still a plight of time to survive, let alone to make a film. But the immediacy urged Rosselini to splice together the raw 35mm film stock he bought from black market in order to shoot the film. The original intention was to make a documentary on the life of Don Morosini, the partisan priest who had been executed by the Nazis. At the same time, Rossellini had the idea of making another short film on the subject of the partisan children who had actively fought against the Germans, eventually the two subjects were put together in a single film with the principal treatment be done by Alberto Consiglio and the participation of Federico Fellini, the future master in his own right. The crew had to film in the streets because the large studios were all destroyed, ambient sound and voices of actors were dubbed after the film was edited, daily rushes were a luxury even to be considered. The result is a film of documentary, newsreel “feel” that shook the world by surprise with its tremendous raw energy.
But in its core, Rome, Open City is very “conventional.” Sergio Amidei once remarked that the film “was made, unfortunately, in an old-fashioned way. From real-life, sure, but old-fashioned, both in its techniques and its script . . . Open City , which seems the founding film in the renewal of filmmaking is, at base, the continuation of previous films.” Indeed the linear narrative (split into two chapters), the heroic resistance figures, the triumph of faith in spirituality, the sacrifice for love and country, the diabolical evilness embodied by Nazi, they are all confined within the traditions. But for every conventional element, there is subliminal amplification to be discovered.
The street photography by Ubaldo Arata, with the reinforcement of the film title, accentuated the status of the city itself as a character. The film opened with the German troops storming on the street of Rome in an attempt to catch Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), the head of a resistance group who escaped thereafter by climbing over the roofs of building; and ended with the city landscape at the far background accompanied by a group of children metaphorically heading into the future of Italy after witnessing the Nazi’s execution of Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), a priest who assisted and sheltered the resistance.
The presence of the “German troops” (which was often shot at a far distance like a guerilla film) on the street not long ago invaded by the genuine soldiers reminded the audience that for all the sufferings experienced, the existence of evil was temporary and only the city, however shattered it has been, would perpetually be present. The film illustrated the flight between good and evil in terms of faith, in particular the Catholic iconography by showing a tortured body being bounded, hands spread, like in crucifixion. Indeed the final paradox of whether Manfredi would give up the information or endure the torture depended on his strength of spirituality, not his political background (a communist) or his ideology. Don Pietro, being forced to witness the torture, believed and prayed for him. The villainous Nazi Major Bergmann shouted that Manfredi was “a subversive, an atheist, an enemy of yours” during the interrogation, and Don Pietro calmly replied: “I am a Catholic priest and I believe that a man who fights for justice and liberty walks in the pathways of the Lord—and the pathways of the Lord are infinite.”
By doing so, Rosselini placed the Communists, the previous saboteurs in the Fascist regime, on the same level as a “saint”, a figure of sufferings and endurance. On the other hand, the Nazi was portrayed as the utter corruption, the representation of the deadly sins. Major Bergmann, thus the Nazi he represented, embodied hubris and wrath, believing that their race was superior and the Italians, inferior as they were, would confess eventually. And when Manfredi endured till the end, his anger would push him to destroy, but as Don Pietro asserted, their body but not their soul. Bergmann’s cohort Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), a Nazi lesbian, represents the decadence of lust and greed. She was the deceptive serpent that lured Marina Mari (Maria Michi), Manfredi’s girlfriend, to betray Manfredi’s whereabouts in exchange of Aspirin for Mari’s addiction, and later rewarded her a fur-coat as the sign of materialism. Hence, Rome, Open City is surprisingly a film about religion and faith more than one would expect in a “realistic” film.
Aside from the issue of religion, the film is also comprised by melodramatic flair, comedic gags, and exhibition of human atrocity. The first chapter is more about how a family be destroyed by tragedy of war. Pina (Anna Magnani), a pregnant widow with a young son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico) and the fiancée of the resistant Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), was a fervent and sympathetic presence throughout. Anna Magnani, previously worked in broad comedy and revues, rose to international stardom with this performance. Her face didn’t possess the glorious beauty or elegance like a Hollywood star, instead she was filled with ardent intensity; her hoarse voice gave a filmic resonance that was both persuasive and overwhelming, not to mention her devastating death scene of being gunned down by German soldier when she chasing her captured fiancé on a convey. Pina, like any ordinary people, only wished love and peace with her son and be married, but when necessary, she could fight with her life for her loved ones even though she was as powerless as others. She was the most readily identifiable figure for the general public, a representation of fortitude and daring just as the city itself. It was a filmic continuation when Pasolini enlisted her as the eponymous mother in Mamma Roma (1962) seven years later.
Rome, Open City is the reality of torture, sexuality, and dirty streets. There was no embellishing makeup, no soft lightning and focus, no epic studio set and landscape matte painting. It’s closer to the way people lived in real life, and the filmmaker’s intention was palpable as genuine sincerity and immediacy. And above all, the evoked emotion is “realistic”.