It is easy for those who approach Rome, Open City nowadays, to drift into the territory of what has already been stated over and over again. Over sixty years from its first release, after legions of film critics have expressed their opinions, countless amounts of quotations and homages have been inserted by directors in their own works, and endless numbers of stories – well-known to all cinephiles – have been told about the difficulty of shooting just after the end of the war, the vast quantities of commonplaces regarding Rossellini’s film are such that, at times, they still hinder its full understanding.
It is of little importance to me to repeat the endless litany on the first masterpiece of Italian Neorealism (which is actually not completely true as some argue that this title should be given to Luchino Visconti’s Obsession, filmed two years earlier). I also don’t care to point out, once again, the innovative grammar of the film, its admirably raw non-fictional style, the use of natural lighting and non-professional actors, and the improvised shooting in the locations of the Prenestino district. I am not interested in emphasizing the skill of a director who, in such difficult circumstances, succeeded in gathering a crew of people (among whom a 25-year old Federico Fellini) who, in a few years, would establish the high standing of Italian cinema. Rather than with the myth, I am more concerned with the morality of Rome, Open City, and the modernity of its values, which still enables this film to convey messages on the actual Italian contemporary situation.
The story portrayed in Rome, Open City, set between 1943 and 1944 during the German occupation of the capital, is very well-known. It is about the sacrifice of two men of the Roman resistance movement: Don Pietro, a priest who is sentenced to death by firing squad for having helped and protected some partisans, and Manfredi, a Communist militant who tries in vain to escape the Germans who hunt him down, and dies without confessing after being brutally tortured by the SS police. The humble people of Rome – a collective character who is perhaps more important that the protagonists themselves – live and suffer with and around them and, in a way, are awakened and fight. Among the Roman people, a few figures really stand out like the widow Pina, who in turn is destined to die during a German mass police roundup, Francesco, the typographer, and the many young children of the district.
This film should be heartily recommended to everyone. Contrary to the Neorealist film tradition, which describes those movies as raw and unrefined, Rome, Open City is structured on a strong and carefully balanced screenplay that smoothly combines the tragic and the grotesque, without neglecting a bit of humour. The actors are excellent, particularly Fabrizi and Magnani who, in contrast to the myth of the non-professional crew, were already very popular professionals at that time. From a distance, some imbalances can be perceived in the partial description of the German soldiers, seen as very cruel and cynical, and of the Italian collaborationists (from the fawning and obsequious Fascist police commissioner to Marina, Manfredi’s former girlfriend, now dominated by the occupiers and a drug addict). In any case, after careful consideration, even these mannerisms can be justified if the film is placed in the right historical perspective.
What is still striking about this work today and what, beyond any commonplace, forms the authentic kernel of Neorealism, is rather its precise will not to be silent, its urgent need to communicate and to exclaim in all honesty the truth, even the most uncomfortable and embarrassing truth, on the state of Italy and of the Italians, crushed at the end of a devastating war. Instead of creating comforting and cheerful works, and listening to the authoritative calls from the politicians not to show the unpleasant situation of the country to the world, the best filmmakers of the post-war period decided to portray, with attention and sincerity, the world of the humble and tried to grasp, from those simple stories, the causes of the present ruin and the hopes for a future rebirth.
This primary inspiration, which is widespread throughout the entire Neorealist movement, is expressed by Rossellini in terms of sympathy for mankind and personal morality. He is particularly adamant about the responsibilities of individuals for the present situation, and about the faults of those who, for their shallowness or for the sake of a quiet life, would not assume a firm position and, as a result, condemned themselves to ruin. This is Don Pietro’s – and Rossellini’s – answer to Pina, denouncing God’s blindness towards men, who are exhausted by the war: «Doesn’t Christ see us? But are we sure we don’t deserve this scourge? Are we sure we’ve lived in the way of the Lord? Few think of changing their ways. Yet, when knotted in despair they cry out: Doesn’t the Lord see us? Doesn’t He have pity? Yes, the Lord has pity. But we’ve much to be forgiven for».
However, once the choice has been made and once the people of Rome has silently risen up against the occupiers to regain their freedom, then – in Rossellini’s view – fears dissolve and the soul can hope again: «It will end, Pina. It will end», Francesco says. «We must believe it, we must want it. We mustn’t be afraid either today or in the future. Because we are on the just path, we’re fighting for something that must come, that mustn’t but come. It may be long and hard but we will make it, and there’ll be a better world».
It is in fact in the name of hope that Rome, Open City ends, despite the death of its three main characters. This is the meaning of the celebrated final sequence, which plays on symbols of the sacred and the profane. It portrays the children of the district who, after witnessing the shooting of Don Pietro, come down from Monte Mario to a Rome which is illuminated by the rising sun and over which Saint Peter’s dome stands out in its gigantic majesty. There is sorrow on their faces, but there is also a new kind of consciousness. Through these children Rossellini seems to be telling us that something is changing, and that the examples set by those who were not afraid to choose will soon be followed by the future generations.
Translation edited by Ester Tossi