As a critic in the 1950s, Jean-Luc Godard quipped that “all roads lead to Rome Open City.” Given the film’s continued status as one of the three quintessential works of the Italian Neorealist movement (alongside of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema) and hence one of the most influential movies made in any era, Godard’s statement rings as true today as it did over half a century ago. With the recent DVD release of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (in which the Criterion Collection has bundled together Rome Open City with Rossellini’s other Neorealist masterpieces Paisan and Germany Year Zero), I happily find myself with a new occasion to re-examine what made, and still makes, this breakthrough movie such an important and vital standard-bearer of the thorny concept of “movie realism.”
The Neorealist movement initially arose as a reaction against the prestigious “White Telephone” films (glossy melodramas so nicknamed because of the conversations they often depicted involving wealthy characters speaking to each other on white phones) that had previously dominated the Italian film industry under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. In contrast to the big budgets, glamorous stars and studio sets of White Telephone cinema, which seemed imitative of the glossy melodramas coming out of Hollywood at the same time, the Neorealists (a term coined by the directors themselves) sought to present a degree of unfettered realism never before seen on Italian cinema screens. What Neorealism did that the escapist White Telephone films did not was address contemporary social problems such as crime, unemployment, poverty and, of course, the ravages of war. After years of presenting a world that corresponded to working class audience desires, the Italian film industry was suddenly holding a mirror in front of that audience for the very first time.
Ironically, one of the reasons why Neorealism was able to flourish during the 1940s was because Italy had been decimated by the war and the national economy was in shambles. Cinecitta, the biggest studio in Rome (then as now), was being used to house war refugees and the government had no money to support the local film industry. But the Neorealist directors weren’t interested in shooting at Cinecitta anyway. They preferred the raw and gritty aesthetic that documentary-style location shooting provided, as Luchino Visconti had proved with his powerful debut film Ossessione in 1942. In a way, the economically ravaged industry played right into the hands of the Neorealist directors and probably extended the life of the movement by several years.
Rome Open City, the first true masterpiece of Neorealism, began shooting in Rome in January 1945, a mere six months after the Nazi-occupied city had been liberated by the Allied forces. Eight months after that, with much of Rome still reduced to rubble from the fighting, Rossellini’s film premiered in Italian theaters. Rome Open City looks remarkable today in that it dramatizes events that only months previously had actually occurred in many of the same urban locations. This sense of immediacy provided by Rome Open City and other Italian films of the 1940s had no correlation in any other national cinema, least of all in Hollywood, and the whole world became transfixed by the sheer novelty of this bold “new realism.” As a consequence, it wasn’t uncommon for Neorealist films to play in even the most rural areas of the United States in the 1940s – as newspaper ads from Watauga County, North Carolina of the period can attest (even if independent theater owners had to sex up their advertisements for Paisan with photos of a scantily clad woman and the titillating tagline “More open than Open City!”).
The plot of Rome Open City concerns the plight of members of the Italian resistance to the occupational Nazi government, namely the resistance leader Manfredi, the underground Communist newspaper printer Francesco, Francesco’s fiancé Pina and the priest Don Pietro. The latter two characters are the most unforgettable and, perhaps not coincidentally, were played by the most experienced actors in the cast. After seeing the film, who can forget Aldo Fabrizi (best known in Italy, incredibly, as a comedian) as Don Pietro, cursing the Nazis with tears streaming down his face before begging God for forgiveness? Or the even more famous scene where Pina, magnificently embodied by Anna Magnini, runs after a prison truck shouting “Francesco!” as the Nazis cart her soon-to-be-husband away? The latter scene, a quick montage of short takes and one dramatic tracking shot, conjures up the abruptness and finality of death as well as any scene in the history of cinema.
But Rome Open City is not only definitive Neorealism because it is a great and groundbreaking film; it also contains all of the hallmarks of the movement (in much the same way that Out of the Past contains all of the hallmarks of film noir); this includes shooting scenes silently and post-synchronizing the sound, a loosely constructed narrative with an ambiguous, “open” ending (the fate of at least one character is a complete mystery) and the aforementioned use of location shooting. However, the extent to which Neorealist conventions are typified by the film has been muddied somewhat in the decades since its original release. For many years the poor quality of circulating prints helped to foster the myth that Rossellini had shot Rome Open City on “short ends” of mismatching film stock. When the original negative was restored in 1995, this was discovered not to be the case. And while the film does feature several rubble-strewn exteriors that are incredibly evocative, it has also come to light that some of the key interiors were shot on studio-constructed sets.
One of the reasons Criterion’s DVD release of Rome Open City is such a revelation is that it proves the film is far better looking than most of us had ever realized. The poor image quality of the old Image DVD had fooled me into thinking that flaws from a worn and faded print, not to mention a less than optimum transfer, were part and parcel of some sort of consciously constructed Neorealist Integrity on the part of Rossellini. The Criterion disc proves that while the film does contain some gritty visual textures, they exist side-by-side with camerawork that is slick and polished and not too far removed from the aesthetics of the White Telephone films that Rossellini was rebelling against.
While Rome Open City will likely never be as famous or audience friendly as Bicycle Thieves, Rossellini today looks like the undisputed heavyweight champion director of Italian Neorealism. His body of work as a whole has certainly been the most influential of any of the filmmakers who got their start in the movement, in part because the films he made in the 1940s were only the first phase in a long and continually surprising career; Rossellini went on to make very different kinds of films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (including an astonishing cycle of romantic melodramas in collaboration with Ingrid Bergman and a series of didactic, de-dramatzed but strangely enthralling history films that in some perverse way represent Neorealism pushed to its logical limit). But none of those later phases would have been possible if Rossellini had not first cut his teeth on the low-budget but genuinely risk-taking Rome Open City, a film for which no one at the time may have been clamoring but which, posterity has proven, the world nonetheless very much-needed.