Over a half-century removed from the release of one of the landmarks of art cinema, Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City no longer looks quite like the exercise in realism for which it gained recognition and acclaim. In the wake of the moment it helped to launch and the influence it exerts even to this day, what is most surprising about Rossellini's film is how conventional it is by today's standards. It hems closely to the melodramatic flair of classic films and has a clear progression of narrative.
What makes it entertaining today, however, is less its aesthetic than how Rossellini used the guise of realism to depict situations that would never have been approved for a studio production. Made in the wake of Italy's liberation and set in the last days of Nazi occupation, Rome, Open City contains startling images of torture, murder, sexuality and a sense of despair that wouldn't slip into American films (specifically noirs) for a few years. Even the film's fleeting moments of hope are undercut by wry cynicism: when a friend asks Nina, one of the key characters, if the rumored American GIs really exist, Nina simply points to a bombed-out building nearby.
The film does, however, flaunt its aesthetic innovation from the start, opening on grainy, naturally lit shots of Roman streets as German soldiers drive to a real house and bang on the door seeking to arrest one Giorgio Manfredi a.k.a. Luigi Ferraris, an engineer in the resistance movement. Giorgio sees them enter and escapes by jumping across rooftops, almost as if Rossellini staged what in reality is a fairly standard flight just to show that, yes, those are real rooftops the non-professional actor is crawling away upon unnoticed.
From there, the director tosses in the rest of the cast: Giorgio, like many other resistance fighters, rely on the local priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), for smuggled messages and money. Francesco, another Communist insurrectionist, is an atheist but wishes the priest to marry him and a pregnant Nina because a patriotic man of the cloth is preferable to collaborating city official. Nina, despite intending to wed Francesco and caring for Marcello, her young son from a previous marriage who acts as a child saboteur for the movement, is strangely apolitical, and more than any other character she exists to further the more staid conventions of the film. Pursuing them all is a curiously effeminate Gestapo major who colludes with a corrupt police commissioner to crack down on the Communists.
The film's first half has not held up well. Rossellini splits attention between the secret meetings of the resistance and the pure melodrama of Nina and Francesco's relationship. They share moments that could have been ripped from any one of the Hollywood romances of the day, faces pressed together as they look off in the distance wistfully and speak of how great life will be. Their treacly loveliness stands out sharply from visions of death and oppression around them, and Rossellini stresses their time together too much for such moments to serve as a contrast to the destruction.
Then, he pulls the rug out from under the audience. Were Rome, Open City a modern film, I might have seen the tragic development in Francesco and Nina's lives coming, what with the overemphasized happiness of the couple who feel that love will see them through the hard times. But the jarring, cynical end to their relationship feels stunning and utterly unexpected for its time: not only is Francesco arrested on information provided by a rat within the group, but when Nina protests she is simply shot and left on the road as the Nazis drive away in plain view of the gathered citizens, including Nina's son. Placed nearly at the hour mark, this action thrusts Rossellini's film into bold, terrifying new territory, and from that point the movie never lets up.
Nina's murder sparks the first true action we've seen from the resistance, who quickly mount an ambush to free all the political prisoners and to take out their grief and rage on the Nazis who murdered their friend. Having proved that no one can escape a war by trying not to take sides, Rossellini dives into heavy political content, pitting the Nazis against the Communists with the corrupt or the uncertain stuck in the middle. Basing the film's morality in a clear Christian perspective, the director twists a few ideals around to justify supporting the atheists, even putting words in Don Pietro's mouth to the effect that those who would die to defend liberty deserve support more than those who manipulate religious faith to motivate ethnic cleansing. That the atheists should ultimately represent the ideals of the priest's idea of good Christianity is but one of many of Rossellini's ironic twists.
Consider an early scene as citizens work themselves into a small riot. A sexton overlooks the action and tells a woman that it would be untoward for a sexton to involve himself in looting even as he casually snatches a pastry from her grocery bag. She takes it right back and chastises him, "Then you'll get pastries in heaven!" Elsewhere, he paints the Gestapo officer and Marina, Giorgio's ex-lover who becomes an informant, in usual tones, one the sadistic Nazi and the other the vain, self-absorbed collaborator who will sell out her countrymen for her pieces of silver (or, in this case, drugs and furs), yet the director also fleshes them out with transgressive characterizations. The Nazi's homosexuality is hinted at, but the lesbianism of his assistant Ingrid is as plain as could be. Instead of getting answers from Marina out of loyalty, she seduces the attractive woman for sex and then goads her boss into giving her cash for successfully getting information from her. Even the drunken, reluctant Nazi who rails against his party's racial purification is contradictory, mercilessly executing the priest at the end when Don Pietro refuses to crack and none of the German soldiers can stomach killing him.
These rich touches mingle with the more provocative and horrific of images, from sheep being shot by Germans to further dwindle the food supply to grisly images of Giorgio being tortured -- including a shot of a torch burning his skin and leaving a small flame rippling on his charred flesh. These scenes stick with you, still resonant and unflinching today. Unfortunately, the shoestring budget Rossellini acquired from the Allies brings down the film: the one aspect of the film most at odds with the neorealist approach, the use of a non-diegetic score, is also the most problematic. With no time or money to mix the soundtrack well, the music often blares over the scenes in which it plays, eradicating any nuance and even killing the emotion or tension of some scenes. When a fascist soldier comes to Don Pietro's cathedral and pulls out his gun, the music practically screams, but he immediately removes the clip even as the music continues to blast as we're in the middle of the shower scene in Psycho. The music even undercuts Fabrizi's thunderous showcase wherein he rages to the Nazis who torture Giorgio to death, shouting to the point that all of the Germans begin to nervously back away as if filled with the literal fear of God. Fabrizi's performance alone, already a programmed piece to make the audience cheer, is powerful enough, but the music here heightens the melodrama, not the passion.
The title credit of Rome, Open City, says as much about the film as anything in it. "Roma," written in black font stressing its dire straits, appears with "Città Aperta" placed over it in white, the hopefulness of the color matching the optimism of the city's designation as "open," referring to the governmental and military stratagem of abandoning defensive tactics for a city about to be seized in exchange for a ceasefire. Of course, bombs continue to fall on the city from both sides, giving Rossellini's usage of contradictions and hypocrisies a dire base in realism. Laid over each other, the words of the title card also allude to the city's checkered past, though Rossellini does not particularly damn the Italians for supporting fascism as long as they did. With the exception of a few rats, the Italians are portrayed as completely against the Nazi occupation that occurred as punishment for Italy's surrender to the Allies. I'm sure that the nation was ready to move on by the time Rossellini made the film, but it's tremendously unsatisfying that he doesn't hold his fellow citizens more accountable for what they did before occupation finally cured them of the last vestiges of fascist support.
Yet the film lives on, one of the most important landmarks in cinematic history. Godard would later play on an old adage by claiming, "All roads lead to Rome, Open City," and his street shots certainly bear the influence of Rossellini's work. The movie would enjoy immense success upon its release and secure the director a far larger budget for the next film in his War Trilogy, Paisan. Whatever its shortcomings, Rossellini's breakthrough struck a nerve, and not even the bleak pessimism of its ending could turn away audiences. In fact, it is such confrontations that overwhelm the memory of the more conventional aspects of the film, adding up to a film that looks backward even as it paves the way forward.