Friday, March 4, 2011

All Roads Lead to...

Film: Roma Citta Aperta (Open City, Rome Open City)
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

No event in human history has spawned more films than World War II. War films during and immediately after the war tended to be more patriotic affairs, often riddled with evidence of nationalism and jingoism. This was important for the morale of the soldiers as well as the people back home. Often the European take on the war is less sappy and maudlin and more realistic. Such is the case with Roma Citta Aperta (Rome Open City, often shortened merely to Open City). The action takes place amidst the destruction and carnage of the war, although the war itself doesn’t really intrude much on the film.

Rome has been occupied by Germany, and the German Army is preparing for the assault on the Italian capital by the Allies. Naturally, there are a number of Italian citizens who would like to see an end to the war. Most of the Italian citizens we spend time with are actively working for the resistance movement, and most of them are actively pursued by the Nazis.

At the center of this is Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), a priest who sometimes acts as a courier for the resistance. His role as a priest makes him valuable, because he is less suspicious than others and has tacit approval to be out and about past the curfew. He runs messages and money for Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), who is engaged to Pina (Anna Magnani), a pregnant widow. Also in the mix is Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) and his ex-girlfriend, Marina (Maria Michi).

The local Gestapo would like nothing more than to capture these men, particularly Giorgio, and will stop at nothing to find him and then torture out all of the information they want from him. It’s the finding him that they’re having problems with. To locate him, they use a series of informants and spies, none of whom is as useful as Marina, who can be bought with drugs and creature comforts like fur coats.

Since the Nazis have a spy placed so close to Giorgio, it’s only a matter of time until they catch him, and the conspirators hatch several plots to get him and Francesco away from the Germans and to somewhere they can continue working for Italian freedom.

There are several surprising moments in this film. Most shocking is the arrest of Francesco and the fate of Pina as she chases after the truck taking away her fiancĂ© on the day before their proposed wedding. Equally shocking is the rescue attempt. The most brutal and shocking part of the film comes, appropriately enough, at the end. I’d rather not spoil this. I’ll merely state that it is one of the most brutal and effective scenes of its type ever filmed, mostly because Rossellini is smart enough to show us mere glimpses of what is happening without really showing us what he could. Our imagination works overtime thinking of what might be going on, and when we see the end results, they are every bit as bad as we thought they would be.

Like many a film, Roma Citta Aperta trades on its characters far more than it does on the story. The story is fine, if a bit simple. It’s the characters who really sell it, though. Fabrizi’s portrayal of the priest is dead on. This is a man who will sacrifice anything for his ideals, a truth he proves by the end of the film. His portrayal here is moving because it is also completely human and real. Similarly, Magnani’s Pina is vibrant and interesting, beautiful in spite of herself, and always interesting to watch.

The same can’t be said of everyone. Rossellini used a lot of amateur actors, and this shows in a number of scenes. The wooden quality of these deliveries do little to detract from this film.

Why to watch Roma Citta Aperta: War from a different point of view.
Why not to watch: As cheerful as a heart attack.


  1. I really liked this one and you describe it so very well. It is an odd mix of stylized heroism (stoic resistance fighters against evil nazis), realism (the style and all the ordinary people involved) and fatalistic tragedy (they all die horrible deaths). Yes this is not a happy movie, but i felt strangely uplifted from watching this. This was big.

    1. This is a hard film for me to "like" in the sense of "enjoy." But it's a really easy film to respect and understand why it is thought of so highly. It's not one I would rush out to watch again, but I'm damned glad I saw it.