Martin Scorsese said that Open City is “the most precious moment of film history”. Jean-Luc Godard (the French-Swiss film director, screenwriter and film critic, identified with the 1960s French film movement La Nouvelle Vague, or “New Wave”) agreed, saying: “All roads lead to Rome, Open City”.
Roberto Rossellini is one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. And it was with his trilogy of films made during and after World War II — Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero — that he left his transformative mark on cinema. Shot in battle-ravaged Italy and Germany, these three films are some of the most poignant documents of devastated postwar Europe.
Open City is considered a founding work of Italian Neorealism. André Bazin, the renowned French film critic, called neorealism a cinema of “fact” and “reconstituted reportage”; screenwriter and poet Cesare Zavattini authored an actual manifesto of neorealist films, stating: “this powerful desire of the [neorealist] cinema to see and to analyze, this hunger for reality, for truth, is a kind of concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist”; for Roberto Rossellini neorealism was “simply the artistic form of the truth”; Fellini, who apprenticed with Rossellini, noted “neorealism is a way of seeing reality without prejudice, without conventions…looking at it in an honest way—whatever reality is, not just social reality but all that there is within a man.”
Neorealist filmmakers did not follow a programmatic list of ideological or aesthetic criteria. Film styles presented a number of similarities, but also differed in many important respects. Some key elements common to Italian neorealist films are: the role of anti-Fascism that marked World War II’s immediate postwar period, an emphasis upon social realism, historical accuracy, popular settings, rejection of cinematic conventions, use of location shooting rather than sets, use of non-professional actors, respect for actual duration of time within narrative, opposition to manipulation of reality in the cutting room, etc.
Despite the rather short run – 1943 to 1952 – the films of the period and the principles that guided them put Italian cinema on the map at the time and significantly altered European filmmaking and eventually cinema around the world.
Open City documents the Nazi occupation of Rome and the courage of the Italian Resistance. Rossellini started work as soon as allied tanks rolled into war-destroyed Rome in June 1944. The events depicted in the film had taken place in Rome in the first months of 1944 when it was under German occupation. The film touched on experiences and memories of the war that were common to people elsewhere and this helped give it its strong resonance with audiences internationally. In 1947 screenwriter Sergio Amidei stated ‘We made Open City under the impression, the suggestion, and the influence of what we had just lived through…More than that, we all have been the instrument of will of the underground army that was anxious to write its page for the book of history”.
By 1944 there was virtually no film industry in Italy and no money to fund films. Many scenes were shot on location in the streets (depicting the devastation of Rome) and in a working-class tenement building with the residents as extras and untrained actors in the cast (Rome’s film studio Cinecittà was serving as a refugee camp). The grittiness of Rossellini’s films resulted from the reliance on the unpredictability of natural daylight, unreliable access to electric power and poor studio lighting, varying film stock (Rossellini had to make a virtue of meager resources, using film that was scavenged). During filming of one scene involving Nazi officers (acted by grips) arresting a group of men, a passerby actually pulled out his revolver to stop them.
At the same time the story plays like a gripping thriller: a cat-and-mouse game between Gestapo and resistance cell.
The main characters of Open City consist of Giorgio Manfredi, a Resistance leader; Francesco, a printer for an underground newspaper; Pina, his fiancée and organizer of the neighborhood women; Marcello, her activist son, and Don Pietro, a portly priest and committed partisan based on real-life underground hero Don Morosini. In their pursuit are the Gestapo forces of occupied Rome, led by Bergmann and Ingrid, his lackey. The link between the two groups is Marina, Manfredi’s ex-mistress, who is corrupted by the Nazis.
Aldo Fabrizi stars as Don Pietro, Anna Magnani is wonderful Pina. Fabrizi was known as a comic actor and Magnani had started her career in cabaret; together they give the film tremendous warmth and heart.
We may say that the protagonist of the story is Rome itself, as a place, as a people and as a historical entity. Yet, we get glimpsed at the domestic dramas of Pina’s household, which are interrupted when a German convoy arrives to search for Manfredi and Francesco. Francesco is found and taken away screaming Pina’s name, Pina goes running after the truck only to be shot dead. It scarcely matters how many times you watch it, the image of a woman shot in the back as she runs through the street is astonishing in its barbarism. At the point of Pina’s death, the film makes a general shift from domestic comedy to public tragedy.
Roberto Rossellini’s, Rome, Open City was the first film to bring Italian cinema to the attention of an international audience after World War II. It was enthusiastically received in New York and would run there for 21 months after its first showing on 25 February 1946. In both the USA and France and later in Great Britain, it opened up an import market for Italian films, which encouraged other directors to expose their work internationally.