ROME, OPEN CITY

Written by Jason Haas

Italy, 1945. 100 min. Excelsa Films.
Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Vito Annichiarico; Cinematography: Ubaldo Arata; Produced by: Giuseppe Amato, Ferruccio De Martino, Roberto Rossellini; Written by: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini; Directed by: Roberto Rossellini

Roberto Rossellini is commonly regarded as one of the true masters of Italian neo-realism, and Rome is often—though erroneously—pointed to as the first neorealist film.  While Rossellini was certainly working towards an aesthetic of realism, Rome is not his most representative neorealist work—melodramatic and propagandistic in places, it undermines its ability to depict the life of the average person.  Nevertheless, with Rome, Open City, Rossellini paved the way for the more immediate, raw aesthetic that has come to define the field of independent cinema.

Much in line with the precepts of the neorealist movement, Rossellini used a cast consisting mostly of non-actors and filmed entirely in real locations, including the streets of Rome immediately after the end of World War II.  He only had permission from the Allied forces to film a documentary, had very little financial backing, and supposedly gathered up spare film from various photographers in order to put the film together.  The film has a visceral loathing for the Nazi occupiers and, by focusing the stories of everyday life in one specific tenement building in Rome during the occupation, attempts to make the pomp and grandeur of the Reich look completely absurd.  The film certainly achieves its goal, but not without slipping into passionate melodrama and propaganda that seem to spring from an overwhelming nationalist sentiment.  The film gives a near-absurd amount of weight to Don Pietro’s Italian Catholicism and turns the Nazis into cartoons of homosexuality.  This is understandable, given what Rossellini and his fellow Italians had to endure during the war, and these elements combine with others to make Rome a richer film. Rossellini’s first forays into directing films were propaganda pieces for Mussolini’s fascist government; there he had begun to experiment with notions of realism and truth in film by intercutting narrative, dramatic scenes with documentary footage. All of these ideas—propaganda and drama as well as documentary-like realism—vie for screentime in the film, and the result is nothing short of fascinating.

Most writing about the film will attempt to characterize the plot as being about Giorgio Manfredi, a Communist engineer and leader of the centralized resistance against the Nazis, as he hides from the Nazis in a tenement building with his friend Francesco and many others.  Manfredi isn’t much of a character though.  Most of the film’s overly propagandistic moments can be hung about him.  Barring a couple of interesting moments, Manfredi has almost no character, and the Nazis pursuit of him functions mostly as a way to see into the lives of all of the characters around this tenement.  When the character is turned over to the Nazis in the end, it is hard to feel much for him in a specific way – instead there is only mourning the loss of the idea of a man who believed doggedly in his principles and would be martyred for those principles.  Rossellini makes much at the end of the film of showing us close-ups of the tortured Manfredi’s ruined face, which was moments ago crying out not for himself but merely for an Italy that was free and equitable.  The image is symbolically arresting and affecting—the mark of good propaganda, among other things.

The film isn’t titled, “Manfredi” though. The movie is about Rome and its people.  It seems certain that cinephile Richard Linklater had this film in mind as he made Slacker, his paean to a certain time and place in Austin, Texas.  Much is made in film circles of the way Linklater’s characters wander in and out of scenes, always following different characters from one vignette to the next, making a cinema of representation with no narrative arc.  Unlike such late twentieth century American independent films, Rome is still tied to more classical filmmaking styles, following a small number of characters in a reasonably coherent narrative arc.  However, Rome develops a more democratic way of telling a story, giving more equal time to a wider array of characters by being more episodic than most classical films, checking in with its different characters at different times, following them for a while and then moving on to some other character.  The film has several miniature plotlines that have little to do specifically with Manfredi and the underground, like the children who mount their own explosive offensive against a Nazi gasoline truck.  Some parts of the film seem to exist only to show an aspect of Rome under occupation, or to reveal some spectacularly war-ruined landscape.  This attempt to capture the environs, and the representation of a group of people in a specific time and place is what gives Rossellini claim to an aesthetic of realism.  By depicting the lives of real people in their daily lives, he is taking the first steps to move beyond the frustratingly gaudy glamorization of life inherent to the classic films of the day.

Moreover, Rome, Open City was a revolutionary departure from mass culture in terms of its production; Rossellini produced a narrative film as one would a documentary—in the streets, with a small crew, relatively little equipment, and no trained actors—and delivered the film quickly, from conception to release all in the same year.  This immediacy gave the film an increased relevance by giving Italians and the rest of the world a portrait of what was happening in Rome at almost that precise moment.  That was something remarkable for that day and age, though it is hard to appreciate this now.  Today, we take the immediacy of representing our environment for granted, shooting a digital video and uploading it to YouTube the very same evening.  We doin’t even bother to call it realism, because it’s just life.  Soon enough, with the advent of widespread digital projection and distribution, there will be the capacity for digitally filmed features to be produced and distributed into theatres within miniscule periods of time.  Heck, I am a member of an improvisational comedy group that makes 25 minute films in 35 minutes in front of a live audience, thanks to digital technology.  But Rossellini was there first, making immediate, visceral films that wrestle with the truth of a moment and a place, seriously trying to show that film as a medium could represent more than the false, surface-dwelling pictures of life that was and is still so prevalent.  If the film stumbles into propaganda and melodrama, these missteps should be seen as the result of making a statement about a moment in practically that same moment.  After all, who hasn’t said something hyperbolic or regrettable in a moment of passion and immediacy?

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