Happy 4th of July everybody! Since this holiday seems to get dumber and dumber every year, I’m happy to be talking about a film that doesn’t have much to do with America.
It’s weird that I reviewed 1966’s The Battle of Algiers last Criterion Month while stating that it felt unlike any other war film of its era. Because Rome, Open City, a film I’m sure it was influenced by, sure feels a lot like The Battle of Algiers. Both of them depict the foreign occupation of a major city, while a secretive group of rebellious renegades seek to fight back. Both also have a kind of docudrama feel, though The Battle of Algiers follows through with a grittier aesthetic, and thus makes the two films feel like bookends of the Italian neorealist movement.
As you could probably guess, this film depicts the occupation of Rome, when the German SS controlled the city for 9 months in 1944. We meet a bunch of Romans trying to make sense of the city’s Nazi occupation, though the first one we’re introduced to is Georgio (Marcello Pagliero), an engineer and communist that the S.S. is looking for. We’re then introduced to a firey fellow resistance fighter Pina (Anna Magnani), as well as the priest called on to officiate Pina’s upcoming wedding, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who finds himself getting caught up in the intrigue of the resistance fighters.
I think I’ll just skip talking much about the plot, other than the fact that the turning point of the film involves a riot in which Pina is shot in the street in a scene that’s both the most iconic scene in the film, and also its most visceral. I don’t want to talk much about the plot because it’s fairly complicated, and in fact a lot more complicated than I was expecting. The only films I had previously been exposed to from the Italian neorealist era (other than The Battle of Algiers, which might be a little too late to be included) is Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., as well as early Fellini films such as Nights of Cabiria and La Strada. One common trait of these films is that their plots are incredibly straight-forward, which seems to intentionally highlight those films’ ambitions to feel “more real”.
The script to Rome, Open City (written by Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei) on the other hand, has a lot going on. Which, I don’t think detracts from the “realism” of the film, because it just builds this large tapestry of people and events that were affected by this period in Rome. We even get to see things from the point of view of both the German officers and the Italian fascists, and though they’re not exactly portrayed in a flattering light, they’re portrayed more generously than you might expect considering the film was made so close to the time period it’s depicting. That is, before the torture scene, which is also surprisingly visceral even by today’s standards.
The fact that the film was made less than a year after the Nazi occupation and even written partially during it, is kind of amazing. Though in theory, it shouldn’t affect viewing the film in a modern context. And yet, there is something indescribable that happens watching these actors and filmmakers put something unimaginable that they’d lived through onscreen. Supposedly the film was constantly running out of finances and even enough film stock to be completed, so there is something very heartening to see that these artists, recently ravaged by war, were able to band together and make something so singular.
This also makes it all the more impressive that the Rome, Open City is so immaculately made. Sure, some of the scenes do have a grainy, rough around the edges feel, which are no doubt the source of the film being hailed as the original neorealist film. But there are also a number of scenes whose stark cinematography gives the film a proto-noir feel, while also expressing the idea that these people have been forced to live and plot their schemes in the shadows. Then there’s the performances, the aforementioned script, and the steady hand of Roberto Rossellini during what was no doubt a chaotic shoot, which all makes it clear why Italy was able to rise from the ashes of World War II to become a filmmaking powerhouse in the mid-20th century.