Back Catalog Review: Rome, Open City

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

Rome, Open City, released just months after V.E. Day in 1945, is Roberto Rossellini’s fictionalized depiction of Don Pieto Morosini’s life during the Nazi occupation of Rome and its sad conclusion. Because it was based on a real man, because it was filmed just after Rome was liberated, because Rossellini hired mostly new actors, and because Rossellini himself experienced much of the same fear and sadness that permeates the film during the occupation, Rome, Open City is a masterpiece of Italian neorealism. It veers into melodrama in the concluding scenes, but those work all the better for the earlier focus on realism and the dangerous situations that the group of Romans the film follows encounter on a regular basis. It’s a near-perfect movie, and it’s the best movie about WWII that I’ve seen so far.

The two professional actors in Rome, Open City portray the two most important characters. The first is Anna Magnani as Pina, a woman preparing to marry her fiancé and helping his resistance fighter friends. She’s got an easy chemistry with everybody else in the cast even as she carries the weight of living in an occupied city with a willful child. When the kid hasn’t returned before curfew one day, she freaks out and, in one of the funnier scenes in the film, becomes one in a long line of parents waiting to beat some sense into their children as they return from blowing up a fuel truck. Her role in the climax of the first half is extraordinary in its ordinariness, and Magnani plays it beautifully. Also spectacular is Aldo Fabrizi as Don Pietro Pellegrini, a catholic priest who does what he can to help the resistance fighters, acting as a go-between and smuggler. When one German officer tries to appeal to his religion in an attempt to get him to reveal information on some atheist freedom fighters, Pellegrini responds, “I am a Catholic priest. I believe that those who fight for justice and truth walk in the path of God and the paths of God are infinite.” This is the kind of religiosity I can get behind. Fabrizi plays him with an inexhaustible kindness and imbues him with righteousness that never abandons dignity in favor of pomposity. Both of these roles were based on real people who met with the same fate as the fate of the characters in the film. I don’t know if that made Rossellini extra careful in crafting their fictionalized versions, but I’m glad that he captured a version of them on film.

Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, Italy 1945, 100 mins)

The other marvel of the film is its pacing. A scene never feels too long and there’s not too much time spent on things that probably wouldn’t really happen in real life. Much of the conversations are filled with practical matters, and when the movie pauses to let characters talk about their feelings or their ideas about the war. Too much of this would have pushed the film too far into melodrama and too little would have the characters become basically cardboard cutouts. These scenes never extend for too long either, it’s an impeccably balanced movie. It looks great, too. Shooting on scraps of leftover film, Rossellini crafts a movie that feels like what it is. There are a few fantastic shots that emphasize the depth of the city and the underground network of tunnels and backstreets that allow the resistance fighters to scurry out of harms way, and the same technique is used to show that they have nowhere to go in the wide open squares when they’re surrounded by the Germans and the local police. The setting of the final scene is overwhelming in its starkness and the mundanity of the acts committed in the big grassy field.

There’s a torture and interrogation scene that takes up much of the second half of the movie. It’s a battle of wills as Pelligrini fends off a German officer’s attempts to make the priest turn over names and locations while a subordinate tortures a resistance friend of Pelligrini’s. During a break in the action, the German officer goes into a side room and talks to various other officers, one of whom is a drunk older man who responds to the interrogator’s indignation at the idea that the Italians can adequately fight back against the German “master race” by saying, “Yes, I’m drunk… I get drunk every night to forget. It doesn’t help. We can’t get anywhere but kill, kill, kill! We have sown Europe with corpses… and from those graves rises an incredible hate… HATE!… everywhere hate! We are being consumed by hatred… without hope.” This is one of those melodramatic instances, but it’s also a deft reshaping of the story of the war. Throughout the film we’ve seen the Romans trying to survive and the Germans executing and torturing them with their usual air of superiority. But here’s a German both acknowledging that the idea of a “master race” is wrong and indeed identifying that the German attempts to conquer the rest of Europe has also been its own downfall. He casts the Germans as hopeless and the other Europeans as righteously hate-filled. It’s a poignant scene, brought down a little by the film’s one fault in its portrayal of the German officers as effeminate aesthetes, a portrayal that occurs throughout film history and stands out as being both unrealistic and offensive. But the words are still powerful, especially as contrasted with the final scenes’ depiction of Roman grace under persecution. Rome, Open City will definitely appear on my next Top 100 list, and in a pretty high position.

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