Filmmaker Firsts: Roberto Rossellini

#19: Rome, Open City (1945) – dir. Roberto Rossellini

Roberto Rossellini’s wartime drama Rome, Open City is considered by many to be the first (or at least the first prominent) example of Italian Neorealism. The use of the real city as the location, as opposed to a sound stage, adds to the sense of capturing the truth of how this group of people was living during World War II. At the time Anna Magnani was one of the best-known of the actors in the film – perhaps the best-known – but the emotion in her performance makes you forget that it is written drama and not a documentary.

Magnani has a striking look but not the typically glamorous style of a movie star. Her character suffers the same indignities as other Italian civilians did during the war, the dark circles under her eyes showing the effects of those hardships physically.

Rossellini and cinematographer Ubaldo Arata use the camera to capture how the characters interact with the rough cityscape. This famous shot of Magnani running after a truck through the rubble-filled streets has all the dynamism of her character’s panicked, desperate movement.

I also love this shot, which shows Nazi soldiers marching up the stairs of Magnani’s character’s apartment house. The same thing could have been shown with a frontal shot of the soldiers, but the faces are not what’s important; it’s what those characters represent that’s crucial. An ordinary staircase is made distorted from the dizzyingly high angle. The film’s technical aspects are quite impressive, including the stirring score by Renzo Rossellini (the director’s younger brother), which at times reminded me of Nino Rota’s score for Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954). Speaking of Fellini: he co-wrote the screenplay for Rome, Open City.

Perhaps the most fascinating female character in the film is the actress played by Maria Michi. From some angles she resembles Jane Greer, the classic femme fatale of film noir. The character sells out her Resistance leader boyfriend out of spite, an action made easier for her because her drug dealer (of morphine or some other pain reliever, although the film never makes it clear) just happens to be a woman who’s in the in-crowd of the Nazi higher-ups in Rome. Humanity and compassion are ignored for the price of a painkiller or a fur coat.

The relationship between Michi and Giovanna Galletti (who plays the German drug dispenser – “Ingrid,” amusingly enough) has lesbian overtones, but another possible analysis is that Galletti’s Ingrid manipulates people of any sex or gender, so long as they are weak. Interesting trivia: thirty years later, both Maria Michi and Giovanna Galletti appeared in supporting roles in Last Tango in Paris (1972).

At least there’s one ray of hope: one young Italian girl asks a boy her age why girls can’t join in the resistance against the occupying Nazis when he says that only boys can be heroes. Women face great struggles in Rome, Open City, but there are some who are not afraid to fight.

If there is any one main character, it might be Don Pietro, the priest played by Aldo Fabrizi. (In this shot, he turns a nude statue away from a clothed one.) Using the privileges extended to him as a man of the cloth, the character can ignore the city’s 5:00 pm curfew and he works with the Resistance force to support them in their anti-Nazi coalition, sneaking necessary items to them.

I wasn’t too pleased with Don Pietro’s query as to whether the citizens of Rome had somehow brought the war upon themselves through their sinning. It’s an idea rooted in questions of religion and God’s ways, but it sure doesn’t make much sense, especially since so many other characters, including Magnani’s, recognize that they are innocents caught up in battles that they did not start. Ultimately, however, Don Pietro is a brave and compassionate character whose inner strength unsettles even a bitter Nazi sergeant.

No one in Rome, Open City is exempt from the injustices of war, children included. The good characters must endure unimaginable pain and the bad are hardened by the cruelty that they inflict on others. Sacrifices are made, but Rome remains standing. These characters, like the real inhabitants of Italy, have to keep their hopes up for a little while longer, holding fast to the belief that the winter (war) will end and spring (peace) will come.

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