Rome, Open City. A great Italian war film

Rome, Open City. A great Italian war film

ROME, OPEN CITY (1945 Re-Issue) opens at the BFI Southbank and selected art house cinemas nationwide from March 7, 2014

If Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City is not one of the greatest films ever made, it is certainly among the greatest Italian films and war films ever made.

The plot is not the thing but the action, and interaction amongst the characters is.  Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), a resistance leader being hunted by the Gestapo, takes refuge in the flat where Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), his fiancée, Pina (Anna Magnani), and her spirited son, Marcello (V Annichiarico) are living.  They plan to marry the next day, but their plans are interrupted when the apartment building is raided by the Gestapo.

The clever priest, Father Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), gains access to the building and distracts the Gestapo with Marcello dressed as an alter boy, but when Francesco is found escaping, Pina runs after him and is shot. Thanks to Don Pietro, Manfredi escapes, but not for long.

After Marina (Mari Michi), Manfredi’s mistress, is spurned by her lover for being a drug addict, she informs on him and Father Don Pietro, too desperate and dim-witted to realise the consequences of her actions.   Marina does not realise that the man she loves is being tortured to death in the same Gestapo headquarters where she is given heroin and a fur coat to keep her quiet.

What makes Rome, Open City a classic is first and foremost, the nuanced script, co-written by Rossellini, Sergio Amidei and a young Federico Fellini. Then there is the wonderfully drawn array of characters played by largely untrained actors (only Fabrizi and Magnani were professionals) and the humanity that oozes off the screen with humour, love and self-sacrifice.

Yes, there are moments of humour, tailored for the children and the cast’s two known actors, Magnani and Fabrizi. In one scene, father Don Pietro tries to give last rights to an old man unaware the Nazi’s expect to find a dying man.

What makes  Rome, Open City such a great war movie is that without a trench in sight, we feel the horror of war as hungry Roman families and exhausted, ill-equipped resistance fighters struggle to survive under the Nazi occupation of Rome. Although the dubbing isn’t perfect, the authenticity of the action depended upon the German characters speaking German to one another.

The fact that the Gestapo speak perfect Italian is questionable, but reminds us that there were many collaborators.  The setting also contributes to the realism. Shot in the streets of war ravaged Rome (and, for the Gestapo headquarters scenes, in the studio) immediately after the liberation of Rome in 1945, the film has the rawness and urgency of a documentary.

What makes Rome, Open City so riveting is Rossellini’s unflinching, neorealist style, the unbearable tension and his refusal to let us off the hook with sentimentality and happy endings.  Not surprisingly, the film won the Grand Prix (the forerunner of the Palme D’Or) at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and has been one of the most influential, studied and referenced films ever made.