Watching Roberto Rossellini’s ROME OPEN CITY is a devastating experience. Seeing humanity at its worst, in Nazi occupied Rome, it is hard to put yourself into the shoes of those who lived through the experience. However the shooting style of the film and the universality of the human indignity make the film’s message reach even those who have never experienced war first hand.
The film follows a few people in Rome who are a part of the communist resistance. Visibly pregnant Pina worries about her fiancé Francesco on the eve of their wedding. He is coordinating the resistance in Rome and knows that the police are on to him. Though his communist association makes him an atheist he has befriended a catholic priest, Don Pietro, who runs errands for the resistance and is going to perform his marriage ceremony.
ROME OPEN CITY is one of the most impeccable examples of the Italian neorealist film movement. These films came at a time where escapism would have been understandable, but instead artists favored gritty, naturalistic film styles. The camera work is hand held, and the dialogue honest. Thematically these films show how bad life can be, and, perhaps unintentionally, the robustness of the human spirit. Just past the heyday of Hollywood’s big productions, these black and white, guerrilla filmed pieces looked as rough and as gritty as the war footage that was getting shipped back from the front. ROME OPEN CITY opened in the fall of 1945, just on the heels of the very war it was depicting.
By filming among the fresh ruins in Rome, and showing the daily struggle of life, Rossellini did not allow his audience to keep an emotional distance from the film. When a film is polished and clearly a depiction of reality and not reality itself, you are able to maintain a distance from the atrocities on screen. You can tell yourself it is not real, because it is not real. But when a filmmaker chooses to shoot in a realistic fashion, it is harder to maintain that emotional distance. You cannot tell yourself it is not real, because there are no longer any cues pointing towards its artificial creation. In ROME OPEN CITY, the settings, the social movements, and the characters’ experiences are all grounded in the war that was still a fresh wound. There is no comfort in telling yourself “it is only a film” because the style of the film does not afford you that comfort.
With some of the typical stylistic safety mechanisms removed for the audience, ROME OPEN CITY also relates to the audience through universal human experiences, beyond the war. An unfortunate number of Rossellini’s contemporaries would have had first-hand experience with war and resistance movements against occupying fascists. Those people would be able to truly relate to the politics and fresh horrors on screen. But for those of us who have not seen these sights ourselves, we can relate to the other experiences in the film. The most striking example is at the very end of the first part of the film. Pina, on her wedding day, is evacuated out of her apartment building by the Nazi police. They are clearly looking for Francesco, and they do end up finding him. As he is being loaded into the truck to be taken to the police station, and certainly his death, Pina cannot contain her passion any longer. She bursts out of her friends’ protective embraces and goes running down the street screaming his name. “Francesco!” As she has nearly caught up to the truck, the guards shoot her dead in the street. Her young son sees the whole thing, and rushes to hold his dying mother while Francesco watches powerlessly from the speeding truck. Regardless of any personal experience with war, love for a lover and love for a mother are easy to translate across the screen. This scene always breaks me when I see it, and I have a hard time imagining someone who could not relate to at least one aspect of the tragedy here.
Though the film only begins its emotional downward spiral from here, watching ROME OPEN CITY somehow leaves me with a sense of hope. No matter how difficult it was, we got past it. The war ended. Rome was rebuilt. Life moves on. And even through all of the horrors of war, love is still a force to be reckoned with, and there are still good people willing to fight for the good in the world. In the film, the darkness wins, but as I leave the theater I get to reenter a world where that darkness was ultimately defeated.