Rome, Open City (1945)

aka: Open City; Roma, Città Aperta

D: Roberto Rossellini
S: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani

The phenomenal international success of Roberto Rossellini's film on its initial release was the result of a combination of factors. Though foremost among them was its use of the radical new verismo style which shocked and intrigued contemporaneous audiences with its quasi-documentary photography on real streets filled with real people, it would be unwise to ignore the commercial benefits of its deft handling of a conventional dramatic storyline, and the powerful performances by its well known stars. Yet its endurance in the canon of film studies is the result of its historical status as part of the Italian neo realist movement and the arguments on politics and culture which may be extrapolated from it. This is an injustice to a singular work of the cinema, whose power derives from a series of contrasts and oppositions, both conscious and unconscious, which attempt to address the real problems of real people in a fresh and pointed yet entertaining manner.

The story concerns the efforts of ordinary women and children to protect resistance fighters from the Gestapo, and to maintain their humanity and dignity in the face of a de facto occupation of the city during the latter days of the Second World War.

Providing anchors to the drama are Anna Magnani as the proud Pina and Aldo Fabrizi as Don Pietro Pellegrini, a Catholic Priest who uses the relative protection afforded to him as a member of the Church to foster the spirit of rebellion and community not entirely alien to his religious beliefs, yet in contravention of official doctrine.

The script, based on two separate stories which were merged in the writing, was partly inspired by the real-life exploits of Don Morosi, on whom Fabrizi's character is clearly modelled. It was co-written by Federico Fellini, who would later take the Italian cinema in challenging new directions, and by Rossellini, whose political commitment and humanism is visible throughout.

The film represents a constant struggle between the raw and unfiltered reality it captures and the careful contrivance of film artists. Rossellini's camera seems to passively observe events on the actual streets of Rome while his cast of mostly non-professional extras interact with the spontaneity of people going through familiar routines. Yet it builds deliberate suspense in the manner of the best Hollywood programmers, and milks its emotional high points for every moment of hope and fear it can generate.

The result is continuously exciting, keeping the audience off balance with a combination of familiar dramatic involvements and a sense of the authentic and uncontrived reality present on screen.

But a great deal of its appeal rests with the performances of its stars. Magnani, a minor film actress but noted stage entertainer, displayed hitherto unforeseen dramatic qualities here which made her Italy's best known international star for years to come, climaxing with an Oscar for The Rose Tatoo in 1955. Fabrizi, best known as a comedian, imbued his role with a touching combination of buffoonery and humanity derived from his lack of familiarity with playing 'straight' roles. The result is often electrifying, and generates an emotional identification just as great as that which would later become the staple of the verismo style through the use of non actors in lead roles.

But though the film is ostensibly less 'realistic' than some of films which followed it, this does not negate its breaking of convention for political ends. Its emphasis on the drama of the people and on the activities of left-wing revolutionaries clearly delineates its metatextual ambitions to play a part in the formation of a new Italy, structured in contrast and opposition to the Fascist state which had preceded it. Employing the cinema as the organ of resistance was no new thing, but bringing the message to the people in such an understandable form certainly was.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.