Cine-East Film Club Presents #41: 1945, Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini)

by George_East on March 23, 2014

Major Bergman:  ‘It would mean an Italian is worth as much as a German.  It would mean that there was no difference between a slave race and a master race.  It would mean that there was no reason for this war.’

Rome, Open City is a film often referred to in film histories as a landmark piece of cinema, as one of the founding texts of neo-realism, the Italian movement which took cinema out of the studios and into the streets and sought to show life in all its dirty reality, rather than a romanticised version of the truth.

All of this is indeed present in Rome, Open City, but it is also a belter of a war film, a great drama and one of the most intense 1hr 40 minute experiences any film is likely to give you.  It even has a lesbian Nazi and a junkie show girl.

Roberto Rossellini started filming on the streets of Nazi occupied Rome with the idea of making a documentary about a catholic priest who aided communist members of the Italian underground.  What he would finally produce would be a tense fictional tale of the Roman resistance or, perhaps, given the title and final shot (about which more later) the resilience of Rome.

The film centres around three primary characters – none of whom will be alive by the time that the film reaches its end.   Manfredi (the Spencer Tracy like, Marcello Pagliero) is a communist resistance leader, who has the Nazis on his tail.   Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi) is the local parish priest, who assists the resistance – even though the communists and the catholic church are odd bed fellows.   Pina (the great Anna Magnani), is the pregnant fiancé of Francesco, another member of the resistance and printer of underground newspapers.

Rossellini depicts the reality of life under wartime occupation – the curfews, the severe rationing, the black market in basic goods, the inspections and raids by the Germans on the apartments of the Romans.   But it also shows how ordinary life continues.  The tensions between landlord and tenant,  the jealousies of lovers, the excitement at the possibility of a wedding (and the little extra food it will bring).

What in the end will lead to the capture of Manfredi and Don Pietro is the betrayal of Manfredi’s lover, the jealous junkie showgirl, not a German raid.  What will lead to the raid that leads to Francesco’s capture and Pina’s death in one of the most extraordinary scenes in cinema, is the young boys of the block of flats in which they  live taking it upon themselves to bomb a German storage facility.   Not an act of the resistance at all, but one of kids playing at being the resistance.

The death of Pina hits like a body  blow the first time you see Rome Open City. The day before her wedding to Francesco,  he is captured trying to escape the apartment block.  He is bundled into the back of a German open backed truck,  Pina runs after the truck calling out his name.  This is heartbreaking enough – you expect the truck to pull away, Pina left fruitlessly running after its receding rear as Francesco is taken off to meet his fate.   Yet Rossellini does not let us escape that easily.  He pulls the camera back so that we can see Pina from the point of view of the back of the truck.   As Pina runs after the truck, she is machined gunned to death.     Until that point Pina had been the centripetal force around which the others orbited.  She was the one who sent for Don Pietro, when Manfredi turns up at her flat looking for shelter.   Not half way through the film and she is lying dead in the middle of an anonymous Rome street.  Another casualty of war.  In the very next scene Francesco will escape from the truck, one amongst many – barely focused on by Rossellini’s camera work.

Much like Jean Pierre Melville’s brilliant Army Of Shadows (1969) (which I think was heavily influenced by Rome Open City), Rossellini shows that being in the resistance is pretty close to a death sentence.   Those who survive, unbetrayed and uncaptured are a tiny number.  Of the characters in the resistance we meet, only Francesco will be alive by the end.   The heroism is of the posthumous variety.  The contrast with the reasonably nice life of those who accommodate the Germans, like Pina’s sister, is marked: there is no curfew for her.

It is a film which  demonstrates the horror of torture, without actually showing any of the torture itself (a lesson for many contemporary film makers). Something which makes the experience for the audience even worse, we can only imagine what is being done to Manfredi, as we see the various implement of torture being laid out on the table.  The German commandant, a committed Nazi, Major Bergman orders Manfredi to be tortured ‘until the end’, and makes Don Pietro watch.   We don’t watch Manfredi; rather we watch the pained but impervious face of Don Pietro.   He knows that Manfredi won’t talk and he also knows that if he talks for him, he will be betraying the bravery that Manfredi shows.  Neither of them will  survive and they both know it.   Manfredi will be tortured to death and then Don Pietro executed by firing squad (torturing a priest would be an unnecessary provocation in a still heavily catholic country  as the obviously intelligent Bergman knows).

In the process of questioning Manfredi and Don Pietro, Bergman highlights the short term nature of the alliance between the communists on one side and the catholic church and reactionary monarachists on the other, saying to Manfredi that it will all come to an end after the war, and the communists will then be persecuted again, this time with the connivance of the church.  This is a prescient statement for 1945 and something that turned out to be pretty much the case in the post war years.

Although in many parts the film is harrowing, it is also one with not a little humour.  The visit to the antique shop by Don Pietro where he turns a statute of St Rocco around so that it  is facing away from the classical nude it was previously looking at.    The bedridden old man whose bed is used to hide resistance weapons, who wakes up to find Don Pietro and one of the boys from the apartment block conducting  the last rites over him (in order to fool the Germans) and freaks out, protesting that there is nothing wrong with him.

Rome Open City is also, in the end, not without hope.   The devastating scene of Don Pietro’s execution, strapped to a chair as the firing squad fire into his back ineffectively, with the German officer overseeing the execution finishing the priest off by shooting him in the head, is followed by the children from the apartments, who have witnessed the execution, walking back into Rome.   The camera pans to reveal Rome in all of is monumental glory with St Peter’s in the background and the children walking down into it.  This is the first time in the film that we have seen the defining buildings of the Eternal City.  Rome will one day belong to these children, the shot appears to suggest, and the sacrifices of Manfredi and Don Pietro have not been in vain.

The acting – particularly Fabrizi as the troubled- priest and Magnani, is superb.   The script (co-written by Frederico Fellini) and characterisation are excellent.  But more than anything else it is the dynamic, compelling and gut wrenching way in which Rossellini constructs the film that gives it its immense power.

As Fine appears on the screen bringing the film to its end,  you will feel that finally you can breathe for the first time in about 100 minutes.


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