The title of Rome, Open City represented three things to Roberto Rossellini and Italian viewers at the time. An ‘open city’ militaristically is a city that has been vacated by defending forces in return for said city being made safe from bombing by the attacking forces. Rome in 1943 was one such city, though as Rossellini’s film shows, such notions were not particularly respected by either side. Rome as an open city also represented a city fighting against Nazi oppression, a city fighting against its occupiers and subsequently a city that was still open to its citizens. Finally, an open city represents a city for the future, a city which the children of the war would be able to take and mould as their own.
These three ideas permeate throughout the film. Rome, Open City is made with clear political purpose and clarity, and this clarity is clear even 70 years since the film’s release. The film is split into two parts. The first half deals with a group of Italian Resistance members on the run from the Nazi occupiers. We meet Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero), a Resistance leader who is almost caught by the Nazis in the opening scenes of the film. He hides out at his friend Francesco’s (Francesco Grandjacuet) flat, where he meets Pina (Anna Magnani), Francesco’s fiancé and already a widow once. Though being communists, they enlist the help of the priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who is able to move about more freely in Nazi-occupied Rome than a pair of young communists are. During the first half we are given an account of their efforts in getting aid to the resistance. The second half however, deals mostly with their arrests and the subsequent fallout.
Italian Neorealism wasn’t born with Rome, Open City, but it was certainly bought to international attention by it. This is a film with much of the groundings of Neorealism firmly in place – poverty, amateur actors (with the exception of Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi), and a grim realism to its filming style. The spatial geography of Rome in this film is a large presence. It is not the romantic, elegant, decadent Rome of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. No, this is a Rome similar to the Vienna of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a bombed-out, tired city, longing to break free from the stranglehold of occupation. An city waiting to be open indeed.
The overall tone and mood of the two parts are split, with the first half tinged with hope and the second half with sadness. By ordering the film in such a way, especially in such a optimistic time as the war’s end, I think Rossellini was trying to send a very direct message: all of the hopes and good intentions in the world are useless if we don’t keep ourselves wary of what could eat us away from the inside (it is ultimately an insider that betrays our protagonists to the Nazis). Rome, Open City is certainly a film made with a political intention behind it, though cinematically, the language it uses is one of simplicity. This is partially due to the lack of funding behind the film – filming was frequently stopped whilst the crew attempted to source unused photographic stock on the black market – but the such simplicity helps produce an almost documentary-like account of the Italian Resistance.
Despite the multiple strands of characters and subplots within Rome, Open City, many of which represent a particular aspect of the Italian Resistance or the war, these strands also exist as functioning, carefully written episodes of human drama. For example, the priest, Don Pietro, serves to show us how religion and the resistance could mix, how the former antagonism between communism and Catholicism in Italy formed a sometimes uneasy alliance against a greater evil, but he’s also an inherently human character – we understand and emphasise with his motivations and beliefs, and Roberto Rossellini makes sure that we do – he questions himself and reacts to others in a completely believable way. Throughout the film, Rossellini’s characters are entirely believable in this respect. Even when he employs aspects of a heightened sense of Brechtian drama to engage with us on a political level (such as in the famous torture scene towards the end), Rossellini never reduces his cast to mere ciphers and symbols. They are always functioning as actual humans, and that makes all the difference.
There are a few minor issues with Rossellini’s breakthrough film. It does seem to almost completely ignore the existence of Italian Fascism, although you can argue that by this point in the war Mussolini supporters had become a very small minority, and the oppression of the Nazis had the effect of making anti-fascist support even more virulent. Roberto Rossellini of course, did not have the benefit of hindsight when he was making Rome, Open City, so I’m being very nitpicky here; after all, this film was made in an incredibly politically-charged time. Due to this, Rome, Open City becomes more than just an account of the Italian Resistance in Rome, it becomes a literal document instead. It is a movie made within its time, amongst people who knew and understood the experiences Roberto Rossellini was trying to express on camera, and in return it remains a brilliant film.