“Back then it was inconceivable to film in a real location, to shoot in a passageway, to bring cameras into stairwells. Shooting in the streets was unheard of. ROMA, CITTA APERTA represents something new because I tried to make a film the way it should be done, accessible to everyone, outside the control of the big studio system and all the slavery that entails.” — Roberto Rossellini
Despite their “Pact of Steel” and heads-of-state handshakes for the newsreels, the Italians and Germans had a long history of hating one another both before and during the Second World War. Behind their chest-beating about the founding of a new Roman Empire, the Italians always seemed only marginally interested in what was going on. It took them five years to defeat Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), this stalemate broken only when they violated the Geneva Conventions by using poison gas. Their 1940 invasion of neighboring Greece, intended as a display of machismo to Hitler, turned into a fiasco from which they needed a full-scale German military bailout. On the Germans’ end, Italians were incompetent buffoons and they didn’t even bother to tell them what they were doing most of the time. Mussolini read about the outbreak of war with Poland after the fact, and that lack of communication, and underlying distrust, would be repeated again and again. Germans were Nordic supermen who fought to the end, Italians were lazy Mediterranean prone to surrender: so goes the logic even today among many military historians. To their credit, most Italians, apart from ardent fascists and anti-Semitic contingents within the Vatican, saw the biological superiority aspect of Nazism for what it was: an empty ideological tool used to justify domination. Although he did pass racial decrees in 1938, Mussolini dragged his feet on any broader Italian participation in the “Jewish question” for a long time, although more out of fear of civil backlash than any humanitarian concerns. As Germany exerted more influence over the nation’s affairs, over 7,000 Italian Jews would be deported and executed by war’s end (see De Sica’s The Garden of Finzi-Continis for one narrative on this).
Everything collapsed in late-1943/early-1944, the setting for Rossellini’s film. American and UK Commonwealth forces landed in Sicily in the summer of 1943 and began moving north. Italy surrendered immediately and was split into a Fascist north, run by an exiled Mussolini and occupied by the German army, and a south that was cooperating with the Allied occupation. A slow grind through the mountainous regions south of Rome commenced. How to handle the city was a touchy situation. No one wanted to be held responsible for its destruction, particularly the Allies, who were taking heat for their highly-publicized flattening of the ancient monastery atop Monte Cassino, mistakenly labeling it as an outpost for German artillery spotters. As they lost control of Cassino, the Germans declared Rome an ‘Open City’, a military term for a city left undefended in hopes of not having it destroyed by invading forces. Rossellini’s love for dark comic irony is on display here, as we quickly come to see within the first five minutes that Rome is not quite as “open” as its title implies, as German SS, fascist police, and “Communist” (often anarchists or apolitical working-class, to be more precise) partisans fight for control. As in most German-held territories, the partisan movement gained steam as liberation drew nearer and suppression efforts intensified, with roundups of suspects and 5:00 PM curfews becoming the norm.
Although often overlooked when discussing the film, its shocking pivotal moment has foundation in fact. On March 3 1944, Teresa Gullace was in downtown Rome with scores of others whose relatives had just been detained due to suspicious activities. As she cried out for her husband and fought to get past the German blockade to pass bread and clothing through the bars of his cell, a German soldier withdrew his pistol and shot her in the neck. Six months pregnant with her fifth child, she bled to death in front of the horrified crowd, including her husband. The killing of Gullace and her unborn child incensed Italians and became a galvanizing focal point for Roman resistance. Fabrizi’s Don Pietro is an amalgamation of two priests, Giuseppe Morosini and Pietro Pappagallo, both of whom provided assistance to the underground against the wishes of the Vatican, and were executed by the Germans. This spirit of cooperation and mutual respect between clergy and “godless” communists would quickly unravel after the war but it does show some measure of help coming from rebellious elements within the Holy See, who we now know, at its higher levels, secured secret passage for numerous wanted Nazis via their so-called “ratline” to South America.
Despite the occasional lapses, there is no disputing that Rossellini’s Rome, Open City stands as a seminal moment in the new post-fascist Italian cinema that came to be known as Neorealism: it was shot on low quality black-market film stock; the German army shown are actual surrendered P.O.W. Germans; portions of the city were still being fought for as filming began; and bombed out locations were just that. To put it mildly, the chaos and discombobulation of the city provided the perfect backdrop that needed little assistance from art design. Such gritty realism was eons away from the escapist “telefoni bianchi” films of the Fascist years, as they were derisively labeled, where Roman mistresses in opulent penthouses called their rich industrialist lovers on large white telephones.
There are, however, clear signs of melodrama and Hollywood artifice, from the swelling score, to the subjective point-of-view camera shots. Rossellini did take some flak from his hardcore Neorealist peers for hiring Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi in the title roles, both of whom were well-known comedic actors of the day that began their careers in vaudeville. The interior sets, such as the Nazi headquarters, were built in the basements of buildings in downtown Rome, and it is here that artificial lighting and more conventional studio set-ups come into play. The Nazis themselves are what you would expect, i.e. 2D stereotypes of evil incarnate, with the notable exception of the Austrian defector from Monte Cassino. Modern viewers might also notice the effeminate nature of lead Nazi officer Bergmann, paired with his lesbian femme fatale informant. Even at this early stage, homosexual “deviance,” sadomasochism, and Nazism were being merged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for popular consumption.
By all accounts, director Rossellini and co-scriptwriter Fellini shared a love for dark humor and irony that is evident in several scenes, particularly involving children. Children were of vital importance in Italian culture of the day, and they figure prominently in much Neorealist cinema; here, they are small adult partisans, taking comic beatings from their parents for staying out past curfew, when in reality they are not playing bocce but setting explosives. From Rome, Open City to The Bicycle Thief to The Children Are Watching Us, they come to embody rebirth, hope, and the potential for progress and modernity.
Overall, Rossellini is pretty easy on the Italians for their part in the war. This can be annoying, especially given his three preceding propaganda films, with their heroic pro-war message, albeit a state-mandated heroic message. And while that can be understood, although not justified perhaps, under the watchful eye of Vittorio Mussolini, Benito’s son and head of the fascist film industry, the same cannot be said of Rossellini’s independent postwar efforts, when he had full freedom to explore civilian complicity in war aggression. To his credit, in his subsequent film, Paisan, Rossellini does delve into more murky moral territory, criticizing both occupiers and liberators. By war’s end, Italian crimes in Abyssinia and Greece were pretty low down on the atrocity list, and self reflection didn’t really pull in returns at the box office. Rome, Open City with its tragic humanism and empathy, was a huge success for Rossellini and opened countless inroads for Italian cinema abroad. His refugee cohort from the fascist film industry, including Antonioni, Fellini, De Sica, and Visconti, would all have new opportunities as Italy reconstructed itself and Cinecitta studios became one of the prime movers on the European film scene.
As for the lasting impact of Rome, Open City almost seventy years on, I find it fascinating that Anna Magnani’s tragic scene seems to have become so interwoven with Italian popular consciousness that its narrative inventions appear even on a postage stamp commemorating Gullace, as the latter watches the truck driving away with her husband, thus mirroring the film, not the reality.