Film Reviews

Rome, Open City Roberto Rossellini

Rating - 10/10

Like quintessentially great art, Roberto Rossellini's Italian neorealist masterpiece Rome, Open City (1945) was born out of necessity.  It's a verity channeled repeatedly through its own architects, the era's audacious filmmakers and historians alike. With immense budget constraints, the film was shot in actual locales, cut with scraps of indiscriminately found film stock and immediately released following the U.S. liberation of the Fascist occupation of Rome in mid-1944.  Primarily documenting the alliance of virtuous Catholic priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi) and cunning leader of the Communist National Liberation Committee Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), the two conspire to dismantle Major Bergmann's oppressive Nazi forces from within.  Like the collaboration between the characters in the film, the complex narrative penned by the young and prolific minds of Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, and Rossellini himself, provides the film with incredible nuance and authenticity concerning its entire cast and environment.  Furthermore, the film's successes can be attributed to its timely nationalist message that provoked Italian sentiments of the era as well as the relatable story that paralleled the lives of many Romans.  While Rome, Open City was initially derided by its own star, Aldo Fabrizi, as being "too grim and painful... not what people wanted to see while they were living through their own real-life grim and painful experiences" (I, Fellini, 57), the film became the highest-grossing domestic film during its year of release.  Evidently, it proposed a sacred unifying bond, an originality and catharsis that other cinematic outlets at the time could not equal.

While defined as 'realist,' renowned critic and author Peter Bondanella and Cinema Scope writer George Kaltsounakis both stress the many conventional cinematic (and, in fact, 'anti-realist') elements at work throughout the film to heighten audience reaction.  As co-screenplay writer Federico Fellini has famously written (I, Fellini, 60), the film was "melodrama perceived as truth."  On-location shooting, documentary style that mimicked newsreel footage, political implications, and nonprofessional actors have been fundamental to the birth and classification of the neorealist movement, but here at the supposed inception, Rossellini employs manipulative musical cues, conventional editing wipes, stereotypical (or what Kaltsounakis calls "Manichaean") villainy, comic interludes, and professional actors (Anna Magnani as Pina had prior accomplished singing, stage, and film careers).  Drawing heavily from Bondanella's writings, Kaltsounakis makes a case for downplaying the well-known status and revolutionary reputation of Rome, Open City, reducing it to "a bridge between the period's dominant modes of storytelling and the future of cinema... conceived as much out of necessity as design."  Its unique style deviated from prior conventions but also retained specific elements to help audiences transition more easily to the grittier format.  In this case, Rossellini wasn't creating a universally novel work.  The film's status steadily became a perversion, and it is in reality less of a true embodiment of neorealism than a fundamental step toward the formation of what would come to be labeled as such in later years.

Temporarily disregarding affixed genre labels as well as Rossellini's philosophy of filmmaking, Rome, Open City intelligently wrestles with competing moral values of its characters with more active validity (regarding those who conspired with Nazis, those who resisted, and those who actively participated in their own city's foreign occupation).  The two activist heroes, Manfredi and Don Pietro, exemplify Marxist class-consciousness and Christian humanism.  While politically divided, the men forge a solidarity pact to rid Rome of an extremist threat.  More commonly, Pina and fiancé Francesco symbolize tangible aspects of the working class struggle, which closely resonated with Italian audiences who were ceaselessly searching for a thread of optimism during incredible oppression.  Outside these core couples, however, is a resistance to the integrated moral standing and perseverance, evidenced between Manfredi and his mistress Marina Mari, the decadent drug-addicted cabaret performer.  During a key scene, the two propel the topic of drug use to the unveiling of larger and more troubling deceptions.  Marina clutches to materialism and abandons any sense of Manfredi's moral righteousness by confessing, "Life is filthy and brutal.  I know what poverty is and it scares me."  Convinced she is substituting whatever means necessary to fulfill a transitory state of happiness, Manfredi denounces her.  "Poor Marina.  You think happiness means a fancy apartment, nice clothes, a maid, rich lovers?"  Utilizing her character, Rossellini is able to paint a multifaceted portrait of the citizens in an occupied city.  Ultimately, Marina regrets her short-sighted immorality, but her repentance comes too late.
Excluding any of the Italian population's endorsement of Fascism, the film's predominant message is faith in rebirth (hence its title, suggesting a city to be liberated), even if it simultaneously casts its leading characters into cruel fates.  There is a recurring imminence for democratic revival particularly seen through Francesco, a surrogate voice for director Rossellini in the film, who urgently idealizes that "spring will come again."  The priest Don Pietro also resists pessimistic descent and compromising temptations, urging that above all he answers to a higher authority.  "I believe that anyone fighting for justice and liberty walks in the ways of the Lord."  Major Bergmann contrarily disagrees and believes in racial superiority; he confidently refers to the Germans as 'the master race' and intends on flaunting this ideology in the belief that Communist Manfredi will undisputedly release the names of Badoglio (Resistance) generals.  In the midst of false prophesying, another inebriated Nazi officer, Hartmann, yields guilt.  "We Germans refuse to realize that people want to be free... We've strewn all of Europe with corpses, and from their graves rises an unquenchable hatred.  That hatred will devour us.  There's no hope."  Bergmann orders his comrade to stop belittling the regime, but it becomes clear he has failed to justify his own ideology, which only prompts more severe assertions of naked power.  Although imperfect and at times opposed to its own intended realism, Rome, Open City is more of a symbolic picture about the point in time in which it was made rather than a celebration of precise mechanics.  In 1945, the film offered something new and gripping, becoming a paradigm that writer Irene Bignardi claims "left a trace on every film movement since."