Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 breakthrough black and white film, Rome Open City (Roma Città Aperta), is one of the more misinterpreted films in cinema history. It’s often claimed as being the film that established Italian Neo-Realism as a movement, yet, even a cursory look at it reveals that, while it employs a few of the Neo-Realist tenets, by and large, the film that followed it, in Rossellini’s canon, Paisan, was truly his first Neo-Realist film. By contrast, Rome Open City is a fairly standard , although occasionally quite good, melodrama. Unlike ‘pure’ Neo-Realism, it employs numerous sets, two of Italy’s then most famous actors (Aldo Fabrizi, as Father Don Pietro Pellegrini and Anna Magnani, as Pina), and uses many shots that can only be described as ‘subjective. Compared to the most famous film of Italian Neo-Realism, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief, this film simply does not hold up, on all levels, from overall quality to the specifics of its so-called genre. Having said all that, on its own merits, Rome Open City is an engaging film that is also a historically important film, as its propaganda value, in rehabilitating the image of erst-Axis member Italy from that of thuggish Fascist invader to victimized puppet state stooge of the evil Nazis, cannot be easily minimized.
Mostly this is due to the terrific script, which effortlessly blends the worst clichés with the most shocking moments of dramatic turns, by Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini, who scripted much of the better dialogue, adapted from a tale by Amidei and Alberto Consiglio. The musical scoring, by Rossellini’s brother, Renzo, is off the rack stuff that often telegraphs action, whereas the cinematography, by Ubaldo Arata, especially outside of the studio, is often quite interesting, using angled shots for maximum effectiveness, although those shots often violate the subjectivity/objectivity line most Neo-Realist films are defined by.
The film is divided into two parts. The first part traces the lives of several characters. Communist Giorgio Manfredi (real name Luigi Ferraris, played by Marcello Pagliero- a Harvey Keitel doppelganger) is wanted by the Roman SS, headed by an effeminate Gestapo major named Bergmann (Harry Feist). Manfredi is working in cahoots with Left Wing sympathizer Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), who is engaged to Pina, who is pregnant with her child. She also has a young son named Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), who is involved with a group of young boys who hate the Nazis. Marcello is looked after by Don Pietro, who has become involved with helping Manfredi and Francesco. Manfredi’s girlfriend is a drug addicted wannabe showgirl named Marina (Maria Michi), who is pals with Pina’s showgirl sister Lauretta (Carla Rovere). Marina is also the lesbian lover of Bergmann’s assistant, Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), who showers her with gifts, in return for information on the Resistance. Part One of the film ends with Francesco being rounded up, after the kids bomb a Nazi vehicle. Pina runs out after him and is gunned down in the street, dying in the arms of Don Pietro, as Marcello looks on. Francesco is liberated, however, when Resistance fighters ambush the Nazi caravan deporting the men.
Part Two opens with Manfredi and Francesco plotting their next moves, and staying with Marina. She betrays them after Lauretta comes over, unawares her sister is dead, and soon Manfredi, Don Pietro (who is caught helping the others), and a German deserter are captured by the Nazis. Francesco evades capture only because he is slightly delayed after saying goodbye to Marcello, after vowing to come back for the boy who was to be his stepson. In captivity, the deserter hangs himself, while Manfredi is tortured to death. Don Pietro witnesses this, as does Marina, who faints seeing her body. Ingrid cynically takes back the fur coat she gave to Marina as payment for her betrayal, and orders her erstwhile informant locked up. The priest is taken out and shot the next day. An Italian firing squad misses on purpose, and the executioner is a Captain Hartmann (Joop van Hulzen), who ironically, when drunk, had railed against the Nazis and their bloodlusty Aryan ideals. The death of the priest is witnessed by Marcello and his friends, who grimly walk back down a hill into the city.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is part of a three disk set called Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy. Also included are Paisan and Germany Year Zero. Rome Open City checks in at 103 minutes in length, and is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Like all Criterion features with subtitles this one has plain white font which often washes out against the lighter backgrounds, making it near impossible to read. Given that this landmark film had been previously dubbed into English it’s a shame that Criterion does not offer this superior option to its consumers. Fortunately, this is the lone entry in the trilogy that comes with a commentary, but only because it’s taken from a 1995 laserdisk version of the film.It is by Italian film scholar Peter Bondanella, and it’s a very good one, as he is scene specific, and does not have an ax to grind. He sprinkles the commentary with facts on the film, the war, and the film’s participants, as well as giving a historical perspective. He also rightly dismisses the claim of the film as the first Neo-Realist film. There is a video introduction by Rossellini and interview segments with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà and Rossellini friend Father Virgilio Fantuzzi. There are also two documentaries on the film; one called Rossellini And The City, in which film expert Mark Shiel discusses urban landscapes in the trilogy, and the other a longer 2006 production called Once Upon A Time…Rome Open City, which is the de facto making of fetaurette, with interviews from Anna Magnani, Federico Fellini, and Rossellini’s actress daughter Isabella Rossellini. An insert booklet has mediocre essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe, and Jonathan Rosenbaum in it. Overall, though, it’s a good DVD package, but one which could have been greater, with just a slightly bit more time spent on it. After all, the dubbing of a film costs little, just a few days’ preparation with trained voice actors (assuming they were not going to use the original dubs from the 1940s), and certainly costs less to produce than most DVD documentaries (whether made in house or by purchasing the rights of. Together with Criterion’s continued drift away from including commentaries on most of their new releases, and their refusal to deploy easily readable subtitles (which forces one to try to read twice, thereby missing much of the actual action onscreen), these penny-pinching methods have taken a toll on the company’s once top drawer reputation in the DVD field.
Overall, Rome Open City is a good film, but it is clearly a far more historically important film than an artistically great one (the predominance of hagiography and agitprop make this almost inevitable). Too many times its lead characters, be they Italians or Germans, good guys or bad guys, fall into stereotypes, and the action plunges into melodrama. Pina’s senseless death is the best example, as she would truly have to be stupid to do such a thing in real life, with her son right there. But, it does set up the rest of the film’s drama and narrative pieces. And there can be some rightful criticism of the film’s dishonest portrayal of the Italian Resistance (which was virtually nothing in comparison to the French Resistance), culpability for the Second World War, and relative prosperity and lack of internal destruction versus other European nations. Nonetheless, the film did sweep the Cannes Film Festival and many others worldwide, and it has a number of touches that redeem its clichés, such as having Don Pietro’s glasses be broken so that he can only hear, not see, Manfredi’s slow death, or the literal killing of two lambs by the Nazis right before Marina betrays Manfredi, which, in its rendering is far more affecting than in its mere description. It should also be mentioned that in a brief scene, an Italian tot’s naked bottom half (including genitalia) is shown, which both adds to the claims of realism, and satisfies the dramatic arc of the moment, highlighting how silly most censored scenes and moments in film are. Rome Open City does not broach greatness, but it does entertain and inspire, even almost two thirds of a century after its conception, and sometimes that’s something which has even more effect than hermetic greatness. So, ciao, and it’s on to Paisan!