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The Nazi occupation of Rome ended on June 2, 1944, nine months after it had begun, four days before the D-Day landings at Normandy. Heavy fighting continued in northern Italy and would not be over until the German surrender on May 2, 1945. From January of that year, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and other writers, actors and technicians began a project to document what the city, and they, themselves, had lived through during the occupation.  Rossellini was relatively well known as a film maker, having directed three movies about the Italian armed forces during the war, now called “The Fascist Trilogy.” When a wealthy woman offered him the money to do a short film about a priest assassinated during the occupation he talked to Federico Fellini about a script.  Fellini was interested in a short movie about children in occupied Rome.  The two ideas merged and, with others, became Rome, Open City,  the now famous progenitor of the genre of documentary-like films known as “neorealism.”  As Jean Luc Goddard said in 1954, “All roads lead to Rome, Open City.

After months of scrambling for bits and pieces of usable film, shooting out of doors to use the light of day in a city where electricity was scarcely reliable, tapping power from Allied army installations for interior shots,  writing a script out of stories, and even dialogue, the writers had heard, the movie was finally released in September 1945.  Initially it was not very popular in Italy where images of war were too familiar to revisit as entertainment.  However in France and the United States audiences came, and came again. After it shared the Grand Prix with several others at the very first Cannes Film Festival, October 1946, Open City took on the reputation it has not since released.

The title meant several things. “Open city” was a term to mean neutrality, a city not to be defended, not to be attacked, open to whomever came in.  Sometimes a city was declared open by the cities themselves, sometimes by one of the belligerents.  Honoring the declaration, of course, was up to the armed forces of either side. Brussels and Belgrade were declared Open Cities by their national governments, and were occupied and bombed by the Germans.  Manila was declared an Open City by General MacArthur and was bombed by the Japanese.  After several bombing raids of parts of Rome by Allied forces in July 1943, in concert with the landings in Sicily, the King dismissed Mussolini as head of government. He was quickly arrested and the new head of the fascist government, General Badoglio, declared The Eternal City to be Open. Eisenhower called an armistice for the city but by early September German troops had marched in and occupied it — Open City, no more.  Thus the title is in a sense, ironic.

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Even so, under German occupation there was a certain amount of openness.  People went about their daily lives, under privation and police surveillance, but out on the streets, shopping, children going to school. Curfews were enforced, food lines were patrolled but usually by Italian police. For the most part people were not dodging bullets or sheltering from cross fire.

It was also open in the sense that open resistance began to mount.  Fascism was no longer local and Italian, tolerated if not celebrated, but was foreign and German, imposed, with severity. Even children took part in acts of sabotage, as one of the scenes in the movie shows.

Despite its reputation as a ground breaking, “realist” film, Open City held to standard plot and narrative devices: straight ahead story, no flashbacks or stories within stories, men and women in love, or leaving love, identifiable good guys and bad guys. Despite its gritty documentary look, there was also melodrama, caricature and traces of the vaudeville comedy the two leading actors, Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi had come from.

The movie opens over a series of warning descending string chords punctuated with horns in a score written by Roberto’s brother, Enzo.   In the gloom a squad of marching German soldiers sings a song of home, a truck on an empty street disgorges more soldiers.  Loud knocks on a door echo. A fearful Italian woman looks down on them and an Italian man bolts from the building and over the roof tops.  This is apparently one of the true stories contained in the film, this one experienced by screen writer  Sergio Amidei.  In short order we see a well dressed Italian [Chief of Police, Carlo Sindici] conferring with a German Major, Bergmann [Harry Feist,] over a map of Rome and hear of his ‘scientific’ way of dividing it up to minimize resistance.  We hear screams from another room and the Major’s command to get the information, of course, but “without so much noise!” 

Outside, a group of women are storming a bakery, led by Pina [Anna Magnani].  Several conversations and quick scenes let us know of the privation and hunger, though not without some humor.  A cloaked man grabs a pastry from a woman’s bag and she asks why he didn’t go in and get some himself.  He replies, he can’t steal bread, he’s a sexton.  She grabs the pastry back, advising him to enjoy his pastries in heaven.   One quick reference that may pass over most audiences is the question asked by a friendly policeman who walks Pina home.  “Are these Americans real?”  She casts her eye up on a bombed out building and answers, “Apparently,” a clear reference for Italians of the Allied bombing raids. 

From here, we are quickly engaged in the story.  Giorgio Manfredi [Marcello Pagliero], the man we saw running, appears in Pina’s house, looking for her husband-to-be, Francesco [Francesco Grandjacquet].  She sends her ten year old son, Marcello [Vito Annichiarico] to look for Don Pietro [Aldo Fabrizi] the local priest, to help.  One of Rossellini’s major themes is set in motion –the necessity, and partial reality, of long time Italian enemies, communist and catholic, setting aside their differences and working against a common enemy and towards a possible united future.  When Pina, already pregnant, wants Don Pietro, instead of the fascist civil authorities, to conduct her wedding to atheist Francesco, the theme is taken up again. “After all,” she says, “he’s one of ours.”

A phone call between Giorgio and Marina [Maria Michi] sets in motion the theme of betrayal and bought loyalty.  Not all Italians are resisters: the Chief of Police works hand in hand with the Nazis; Marina decides on the best offer.  

Don Pietro is found at the school. We are introduced to a gang of boys, including Marcello, who will later show their bravery with a daring act of sabotage followed by a reminder of their youth, as each is thrashed by terrified parents for coming home so late. Without much difficulty, Don Pietro is talked into smuggling money to partisans outside the city. Rossellini indulges in another comic scene as the priest arrives at a pawn shop to get the money and finds a statue of St Anthony gazing at a statuesque Venus and uneasily makes several adjustments to move the saint out of temptation. 

Part one ends with the film’s  most memorable scene.  Another raid on the apartment block nets Francesco, on the day of his wedding.  As she races after the truck Pina is shot. [Another story taken, partially, from Magnani’s own experience.] Marcello, in a “blindingly white altar boy’s cassock” as Vittorio Taviani points out, and Don Pietro race to her; she dies in the priest’s arms in a reversal of Michaelangelo’s famous Pietá.

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Part two turns more attention to the Germans and sympathizers.  The story of Giorgio’s betrayal by Marina plays out, and of her seduction by German gifts and (false) sweetness.  Giorgio and Don Pietro and an Austrian deserter from the German army are caught by the military police.  Francesco escapes because of a tender encounter with Marcello who calls him Papa and gives his own scarf, a gift from Pina.

The scenes of close quarters in prison, a threateningly reasonable Nazi, and Giorgio’s subsequent torture are still shocking to watch, after decades of cinematic celebration of violence.  In 1945 they were completely new and unnerving to viewers; movies after all were for entertainment. When Don Pietro will not try to persuade Giorgo to talk, the Major’s sadism is doubled: the priest is brought in to watch the torture.  He responds by praying for Giorgio –that he will have the strength to remain silent. Don Pietro, in another iconic scene, is tied to a chair and executed by a very unwilling Italian firing squad — witnessed by the young boys through a fence.

In the final shot of the film the boys walk slowly back into the city which will soon be actually open, and theirs to re-build, as Rossellini hopes, with the feeling of common purpose forged through shared experience and suffering.

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From the narrative of the film, the framing of particular shots, the use and impact of light and music, audiences come away with impressions of the most fundamental interest: what about us?  How have these representations of human beings behaved?  Do I like this character or dislike that one?  How has he/she met the challenge posed? With courage or cowardice, with principles or opportunism, with loyalty or duplicity?  Above any particular character, the same might be asked of their creators, the writers, director and producers.  We are not interested in just ‘what is the story?’ but in ‘what are the values?’ What has the creative team thought it important enough to spend time on, and ask us to spend ours? How does the director see the problems he is engaged with? Is he sympathetic to his characters, or standing off from them?  Is he even, perhaps, cynical? Even non-message movies have a message: what is it?

Rossellini was very clear about this.  During the reign of Mussolini, who had pretensions of making Rome a bigger and better Hollywood, movies were primarily “white telephone” escapist diversions.  Beautiful women in luxurious gowns, lounged on satin chaises and handled their light-hearted affairs over a white telephone.  Rossellini wanted none of that.  He wanted to “to give an honest account,  to show things as they were, to show the destruction of war.”  “We couldn’t make up fictional stories,” he said. Taking camera and sound and actors out into the streets was virtually unheard of until he did it. Necessity, in a partially functioning city,  combined with his intention, to do exactly that. Into what had been for audiences only Pathé newsreels now entered “real” people, bringing the viewers along with them.

Rossellini later confessed, as some critics had pointed out, that he hadn’t been completely true to his vision in Rome, Open City.  He himself preferred Paisan, the second of the War Trilogy.  In Open City, despite its documentary feel, he still used story and character “to seduce” the viewer.  Though he stepped away from insistence on the “perfect shot” of a studio to work with what conditions brought him,  he still used melodrama, comedy and caricature to bring the audience into the story and into agreement with the moral stance of the film.

The Germans are universally bad.  The Major’s initial politeness turns into a creepy, homosexually tinged effeteness, corrupt in multiple ways.  The odd lesbian seduction of Marina by Ingrid adds to the trope.  Nor, do we see any of the “good guys” struggling with what they are doing; they simply do.  We may approve of their courage and actions from our darkened theater seats, but true realism would let us in on more internal struggle. The priest in particular might have had several tumbling swords of morality to juggle.  The only one who seems to be torn about her choices is the not very appealing Marina.  She has some loyalty to Giorgio and perhaps, he if didn’t lecture her so much, might lean his way.  She doesn’t.  She gives him up.  Her response, on seeing what she has caused to happen to him, is a too quick, girly fainting spell.

Open City likely gained in reputation from just such weaknesses.  The war was not over when the movie began to be seen.  Everyone needed to see and believe in proudly, if broadly, drawn characters.  Even if the crew itself, while making the movie, spent fearful days –from their own recent experience and with the war still not over– audiences responded to screen images of folks like them resisting evil with verve and fortitude and instinctive courage.

Too much realism disheartens.  Perhaps if the realism of say, Masaki Kobayashi’s war time trilogy, The Human Condition, were part of our understanding the romance of war would beckon less strongly.  In the midst of war we want to see Rossellini’s models of resilient behavior, and try to believe we too might respond in similar ways.   Take a look at Rome, Open City and see if you don’t agree.

The newest Criterion Collection release of Rome Open City has very interesting interviews with Isabella Rossellini, Roberto’s daughter with Ingrid Bergman. Adriano Aprá, an Italian film critic talks about the movie.  Peter Bondanella contributes a voice over commentary as the film is running.  Available on line, and in a War Trilogy set on DVD.

It is available as a DVD at Netflix, streaming at various places.  Check JustWatch and search for it.  Check your local library as well.