Friday, September 04, 2020

Rome, Open City (1945)

Roma città aperta, Italy, 103 minutes
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Writers: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Alberto Consiglio
Photography: Ubaldo Arata
Music: Renzo Rossellini
Editors: Eraldo Da Roma, Jolanda Benvenuti
Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Maria Michi, Giovanna Galletti, Carla Rovere, Francesco Grandjacquet, Harry Feist, Joop van Hulzen

There's a reasonable argument for a chain of cause and effect that starts with director and cowriter Roberto Rossellini making propaganda films for Italy's Fascist regime in the early '40s. One thing leads to another, giving us Naked City and eventually Jack Webb's hectoring pro-police agitprop media empire in the '60s and '70s and onward to documentaries as we know them today. No one can match the Lumiere brothers for impact on documentary moviemaking, they literally invented it, but Rossellini might be the No. 2 suspect here with his brand of neorealism, an aesthetic that relies on the structurally primitive for credibility and has informed a thousand million pieces of gritty realism as we understand it today: camera in motion, shooting on location rather than soundstage, favoring nonprofessional players over entertainers, and thematically placing the focus on scenes of poverty and social privation. The house is burning down, neorealism says implicitly. Who cares if the film stock matches?

That's pushing it a little, of course. Neorealism didn't just come out of nowhere. It emerged from Italy in the '40s under the care and guidance of Antifa critics and filmmakers such as Luchino Visconti, whose Ossessione—his take on James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice—is considered the first neorealist film. All Rossellini did was manage to put himself in the right place at the right time, wining a big prize at Cannes in a postwar bust-out that launched neorealism, or something like it (looking at you, Dragnet), permanently into popular consciousness. But Rossellini was more than a reformed propagandist who got lucky. He was a sensitive filmmaker and a complex figure relying on instinct, at bottom something of a romantic. He was aware of history but his impulse, for better and worse, was to make sweeping emotional statements out of it. 

Rome, Open City is the first of Rossellini's so-called Neorealist Trilogy, with Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948). In 1949 he fell in love with the movie star Ingrid Bergman. They married and made movies together through much of the '50s. While Rossellini's three neorealist movies of the '40s, especially Rome, Open City, are widely considered landmarks of cinema, it's interesting that critical opinion favors a decidedly different direction in his work. Judging, anyway, by the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, critics in aggregate actually prefer one of Rossellini's '50s movies with Bergman, Journey to Italy, which is pretty much the opposite of neorealism, with glamorous movie stars and an insulated story of tormented love within the wealthy class. Locations are still preferred to soundstages, but now the location is an expensive villa with a view of Mount Vesuvius.

To be clear, Journey to Italy is my favorite Rossellini too. And I like Jack Webb's aesthetic, while I'm at it, in spite of his dreadful politics and lies. We all contain multitudes now. I appreciate Rossellini's formal contributions in Rome, Open City, and parts of it are not just powerful but stunning. It's a good movie to look at in parts—all the troop movements, for example, shot from rooftops using German POWs as extras. Among other things you see The Battle of Algiers in this picture, you see origins of Jean-Pierre Melville. As a whole, however, something has always been missing. There's an inconsistency to it that feels beyond aesthetics. It often plays like its most obvious heir, Bicycle Thieves, wearing a big ol' heart of compassion on its sleeve. And then it will lapse into spy/adventure mode, with stirring sinister music. It has glamorous sick Nazis, lesbians, drug addicts, and a lengthy torture scene. The latter is famous for its shocking suggestion, showing a tableful of instruments, with a blowtorch, various pliers, etc. (Recall Marsellus in Pulp Fiction: "I'ma call a coupla hard, pipe-hittin' [colleagues], who'll go to work on the homes here with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. You hear me talkin', hillbilly boy?") There's even someone brandishing a bullwhip. Horrible agonized screams from behind closed doors.

In the end, these Nazi artists of torture cannot break our hero, Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), which contributes fatally for me to an air of NON-realism in this neorealism. It has taken us a while to get here, and arguably 1945 was too soon, but most people agree now the reality is that torture breaks down everyone. Especially if it involves a blowtorch, pliers, and a bullwhip. Rome, Open City is actually full of these movie-movie touches—which are not unwelcome, I admit, and are expertly done. Anna Magnani is stellar as a common woman with a lot of heart, coping first with the Italian Fascist regime and now, in the present time of the movie, with the Nazi occupation of Rome (following the Allied successes in southern Italy). Aldo Fabrizi is also quite good as the supporting star of the spy part of the story, playing a priest who is secretly or not so secretly involved in the underground resistance.

Rome, Open City has always seemed like a movie I should like more than I actually do. The later movies in this trilogy are equally flawed in their ways but ultimately I think more compelling. In Rome, Open City we see how hard it is to weed impulses of glamour and sentiment out of industrial-sized movies no matter how hard a filmmaker tries, and Rossellini appeared to be trying. Paradoxically, his impulses to please tend to undercut his impulses to tell and show the truth and the movie is constantly troubled by its own internal tensions and these shifts in tone. It's an interesting, historical, and important mess, but still a mess.


  1. Fascinating to bring Jack Webb into the discussion!

  2. I always like to get him in when I can! And it's a pretty direct line from this to Naked City to his earliest stuff.