All Roads Lead to Rome Open City

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.

About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

19 responses to “All Roads Lead to Rome Open City

  • suzidoll

    I have always preferred OPEN CITY to BICYCLE THIEF for reasons that you mention. Of course, I respect BT but Magnani is just so dynamic and passionate. Great post on one of my favorites.

  • david

    Thanks for the intro for White Telephone films and the background of Neorealist movement,now I’m gaining some senses.

  • Michael B

    Rome Open City was quite impressive especially after being fillmed a few months after the war. The realism and quality are incredible. It looks as fresh today as I’m sure it did 70 years ago. I’ve never seen a Rosselinni film, but this has inspired me to look up other films of his. Aldo Fabrizi did an excellent performance as Don Pietro. This was a beautiful movie and really tells the tribbilations of war. I liked this better than Spielberg’s Schinder’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Rome Open City seemed more real than those films.Thanks for showing this to our class!!

  • nate schnittman

    Rome open city in my opinion was a great way to show our class neo realism. I think to have a war film actually show in a city ravaged by war up to then was probably the most authentic way to shoot this story. To be frank i think the shittiness of the city in general helped the story greatly. Rome had been liberated in June 1944 but the city was very much in disrepair by the end of the war when this was shot. I think the dearth of professional actors was great and felt more real than having big name celebrities star in the movie. Compared to some actors of today who don’t really bring much to their roles and act woodenly, the amateurs did a magnificent job. The greatest part of the movie and the one that makes me appreciate Italian Neorealism the most was the very realistic and very much connected to reality ending. Many of the characters we have grown to love have died, some heroically, some in a way that shocked us as coming out of nowhere. But the knowledge they died defending has gone undiscovered by the enemy and the liberation of the city in now almost a certainty. Its a tragic but triumphant ending for the good guys, short term but it still is seeded with uncertainty of what happens to Rome and Italy next. The movie was made really for Italian audiences because it voiced their concern for the future but also tries to reassure them with quotes that seem to be addressed to them by characters, for example, “We mustn’t be afraid of the future because we’re on the path of the just”. Sometimes we get caught up in a happy film but its important to remember that a completely happy war film is unrealistic and disingenuous and i think the neo-realists really hit the nail on the head by portraying it as a tragic for all who take part whether they win or lose. And i think that’s a very important sentiment to convey when talking about war.

  • Karolina Roszko

    Typically, it has been noticed that art is influenced by the historical events going on at the time, or at least linked to in some way. Soviet Montage was a popular option in Russia during that time due to the fact that the directors were able to express their war feelings, the screwball comedy was a way of escaping the harsh reality of the Great Depression. Italian neorealism is similar to that, in the way that it was inspired by the harsh times. However, instead of escaping the fact, the Italian embraced it. Instead of filming the comedic lives of the rich, like in My Man Godfrey, Rome, Open City by Roberto Rossellini focuses on the poverty that has taken over Italy due to the war. While the narrative might not be so well-developed, the focus on the poor is strong, which allows the audience to understand, and especially in those times, relate with the struggle of the character.
    The fact that the storyline and dialogue are so vague, allows the audience to connect with the character. Much like how the reporters in Citizen Kane were masked with minimal speaking roles, so are the characters in Rome, Open City. The director presents the relationship between the characters, however, no depth is developed. This might have been done purposely in order for the audience to connect on a much more personal level with the audience. The movie was released 8 months after the Nazis had left Italy, meaning that the experiences the citizens went through was still fresh. For example, the moment when Pina was chasing the car that held Francesco, and then a few moments later getting shot. This not only shows the cold approach of the Nazis, but also the heartbreaking loss of a loved one. The audience would be able to relate to both those concepts, allowing them to correspond their own personal storyline, with the very vague and loosely presented on in the film, creating a mentally strong storyline that fits their emotional needs.
    Italian neorealism focused on bringing authenticity into a fictional film. The documentary style filming on location gave the audience a feeling of actually, due to the fact that not only was it filmed in real life settings, but also showed reality of how life was for the working class at the time. Rossellini shares this feeling of authentic poverty, as well as poking some fun at it. From the beginning of the film, this can be seen by the area that Giorgio Manfredi lives in. He is seen leaving a shack on top of his apartment terrace, one can assume is an outhouse. Just a mere 5 minutes into the movie from this scene, the audience can see the citizens of the town storming the bakery. This not only shows the historical accuracy of how the public approached obtaining their food during desperate times, but also a certain level of empathy between how the characters in the movie are living with how its audience members are. Pina even stated that they “had to sell everything just to get by.” This situation would ring very close to home with the audience, due to the fact that poverty was very common in Italy at the time. While this might seem like a gritty approach, Rossellini manages to add some light humor. In our current times, we can all relate with offering someone coffee, but that fact that “coffee” wasn’t nothing more than just some hot flavored water at the time is somewhat amusing. Through the documentary, and authentic feel of the movie, Rossellini is able to present the true feeling of the Italian citizens at the time, allowing the audience to form a connection with the characters due to their similar circumstances.
    In Rome, Open City, directed by Roberto Rossellini, he is able to film on location, and be vague about the storyline. Through this, he is able to give a real-life feel in his movie, which allows his audience to place themselves inside the movie. The viewer is able to relate with the situations of the characters, and therefore, enhance the storyline, in a way that correlates with their personal experiences. Italian neorealism allows the audience to watch a movie as if they were looking in a mirror, by presenting the situations of the time realistically.

  • Kelly A. Haggerty

    I find it fascinating that Neorealism was so popular during this period. It seems somewhat typical that people tire of war and look for distraction or relief from wartime troubles with theater and other entertainment. I had wondered in class that if Cinecitta had stayed operational during this period, if Rome Open City would have been as popular. Your mention of other movies being heavily pushed with sexual draw is actually very interesting to me especially as this movie was released at the end of the war. I agree with Karolina, it seems the Italian embraced their experiences and wanted to portray them visually. I can see why a movie like this would be so popular also as it is extremely easy to relate to and become involved in due to its realistic nature. I personally, cannot get the image of the bloody torture tools on the table out of my head. The performances in the film were also very moving such as the mentioned character Don Pietro played by Aldo Fabrizi. This piece was a great film to see as a reflection of this period in film history. It is a movie I will not be soon to forget.

  • Aksana Karol

    The film Rome Open City perhaps has no rival to the human aspect as well as clarity of purpose of the producer’s present day realism masterpiece. From the very onset, the intentions of the directors are known when they ensure that this film ‘Rome Open City’ puts together the narrative on how the Nazi occupied the city of Rome as well as how brave the resistance by the gallant Italian forces were. It does no matter how many times one watches the movie, the scene of a woman getting shot from behind while she runs through one of the streets is very difficult to watch.
    Acts of a similar nature raise concern among the viewer’s regardless of the reasons given to vindicate them. Furthermore, the plot of the film addresses the position of the group that formed the Italian resistance who fought against the Nazi government’s occupation. The characters in the film are unforgettable as they seemed as experienced in acting the film’s cast. In some scenes, there are dramatic turns around where transitions in shots bring out the abrupt nature of happenstances in the film. The finality of acts and scenes in the film are extraordinary and stand out to be the best in the history of film making.The extent of neo-realism in the film has been diluted over the years since Rome Open City was released some decades ago. The aspect of humanity in the film that has tragedy is the concern of the Rome Open City where fates are intertwined, a priest risks life to aid a resistance. We are left wondering at the courage of the priest while at the same time gratified by his heart of tenderness. The film generally wins over the viewer’s emotions as it reflects the truth of our history.

  • petya kaloferova

    Rome Open City is such a great example of the Italian Neorealism. The movie reveals the true picture of the current situation in Italy at that time of the World War II. The Italian society is suffering from deep poverty and continuous fear from the Nazis. The viewer feels the pain of the characters.
    Location shooting contributes so much to the realistic feel of the movie (the walls inside the homes are with peeled off paint, the doors are old and damaged, the buildings are destroyed, the streets look like streets of terror, etc.).
    Another reason why the movie has such a powerful influence on the viewer is because it was made at the time of the war and the characters were living through this war. Even though only two of the characters are professional actors, all of them play their roles so persuasively. Seems like with ease they reveal the current situation in the country because to them this war is something too familiar.
    The only two professional actors Pina and Don Pedro are so memorable. The viewer falls in love with Pina when she screams “Francesco”. But at this moment she gets killed. Her death is so unexpected and sudden. The viewer is not ready to see this favorable character go away. But that’s how reality is, especially the reality of war. This moment is one of the times when the viewer feels the neorealistic character of the movie. Another neorealistic moment is the end of the movie. The ending is ambiguous and open. The audience sees the young kids (the future of the country) holding their hands and walking towards the city. The future of the country is uncertain. When is the war going to be over is unclear. The movie does not give answers to these questions. It leaves the viewer guessing, figuring it out on his/her own.

  • Jimi George

    “Rome open city” depicted life during the war as real as possible using neorealism. The fact that the actors who played the character Pina and the priest Don Pietro were unprofessional actors was more fascinating to me than any other aspect of the movie. Though both Pina and Father Pietro was played by unprofessional actors, their acting which lacked the glamour of professional actors made their characters both breathtaking and heart striking to the audience. I think that anyone who watches this movie will find it hard to forget Pina who was shot in front of her son, while running after to save her fiancé. Just like Pina, the priest Don Pietro who not only died in the hands of Nazi’s but also had to watch his friend Manfredi getting tortured, both created an impact and left an imprint in the viewer’s heart. Though both the deaths weight equally on the impact they made among the audience, I felt that the priest’s death touched me a little more than Pina’s because his death marked the end of the little humor that his character brought on screen which helped me endure the tension of the whole movie. Along with Pina and Don Pietro, it is hard to forget the child characters in the movie that understood the desperate condition around them and were trying to copy the actions of their adults, wanting to help the cause and their country. Just like children in the movie who were trying to mirror the actions of the adults around them, neorealism reflected the reality of the society to the viewers.

  • Gil Oh

    “Rome, Open City” was a complicated film. It is a war film that has no war in it. For the some part of the film, it was more like a documentary to make it realistic. The reason is Rossellini did not leaded empathy for a specific situation or person. Also he did not exaggerated anything to deliver the message to the audience. For example, it does not seem like there is a main character. I mean there is a resistance against the Nazi, but even Manfredi, who is the leader of a resistance doesn’t have any heroic characteristic. Additionally, Rossellini drew Italy, at this time very dark, hopeless, and miserable. Since the background is very depressing, characters’ behaviors were very realistic. Rossellini described that people’s true behavior comes out when they are desperate. Maria betrayed Manfredi not because she hates him; she thought Manfredi is going to leave her and she was also drug addicted by German Lesbian Ingrid. The other unforgettable behavior is when Pina was not afraid of getting shoot by Germans when she chased the prisoner bus that Francesco was in. For me, it was very well described about how love changes people’s behavior. Including these realistic characteristics, everything mixed well to express the situation and atmosphere because it is real life during the war period. In conclusion, Rome,Open city was a film that is a definition of neorealism.

  • Roshin George

    This is thus far the movie that I’ve enjoyed the most. Maybe because it is just me loving patriotic movies but this movie had me in through out the movie. Considering the fact that it was the first movie made centering realism, it surprises me how strong they have gone with criticizing Germans and the amount of violence they have showed. But I’m not sure if the movie could have stand alone without such scenes. Yes I did see the use of location shooting many times and I think it is the very first time in class we saw use of such places. The scene that comes first in my mind is the back dooror the route behind the building which is very realistic. I personally have experienced such places. When it comes to acting, through out the movie I was trying to figure out the second professional actor. Aldo Fabrizi acted as Priest Don Pietro was the obvious choice for the first one. His performance was one of the best I have seen till today, especially the last scene. I didn’t know he was comedian when I was watching the movie but few scenes made me feel like he was. Scenes where he joked arround with the Pina’s son, especially the scene where the Granade almost falls down and the quickness he shows to catch it is something we cannot see from any other priest. Overall his performance was just mind blowing and very realistic. But the second actor was tough to find just because everybody looked very proffesional. It could have been much harder to find one who didn’t act well. Overall I loved the movie and as you said Rosellini did his job very well.

  • msulic01

    Rome Open City was a very good example of Neorealism. The use of location was the biggest for me. I noticed during the apartment scene, and as well as the scene the police took in the gentlemen part of the rebellion. Neorealism changed the way movies were watched and filmed. Rome Open City took nonprofessional actors and used them in roles they were already accustom to in real life. The movie was set at a current time that many people in the 40’s and 50’s could relate to because they encountered similar situations. The movie was a good and I enjoyed it for the way the film producers were looking to capture reality.

  • Matt Pink

    Rome Open City is the beginning of modern day film work. This brand new idea of shooting on location as opposed to the erected sets in a film studio is revolutionary, yet so common to us today. Shooting on location gives this feeling to the viewer that anyone, including them could be in the same location, in the same situation. Neo Realism served as a new wave of viewer “participation”. Watching a film was no longer an escape into the life of a well to do Italian elite. No one watching the early “White Telephone” films had ever dreamed of owning such an extravagant amenity. This move into realism is outstanding at pulling the viewer into the story of the film. especially in Rome Open City, because of the mass amount of rubble and rampage left over from the occupation of the Nazis. It is sad that in order for this form of movie making to come to fruition, it takes almost the entire annihilation of a country individual country.

  • Lorena

    I love how rome open city depicted italian neorealism at best. we can see in the beginning of the film, the shooting location was the streets of rome and we were able to see the roofs of the houses. watching this film reminded me of mexico due to the cobbled streets and the terra cotta roof shingles, it brought a nostalgic feeling. in addition, i could really relate to the scene when pina sends her son to get the priest because, like mexico, you can walk to every place in the town, because everything is kind of near to each other. i also agree with you on the most unforgettable characters of the film. the priest was my favorite to watch because he made me laugh and he did things that other priests wouldnt do. my favorite scene is when he curses the germans and they become scared. this movie was definitely hard to watch because of the cruel germans bullying the italians. one of the hardest scenes to watch was when the priest was forced to hear the painful screams of manfredi being tortured. i very much agree with you on the film having a loose plot and open endings. i liked this idea because it really left me curious and made me think more than other films. one of the scenes that i will never forget is when pinas sister arrives at marinas house and says that she left her house and we, the audience know that pina died, and her sister of course doesnt know that. Rossellini did a fantastic job with this film and portraying italian neorealism, which as you mentioned was perfect to shoot on location after the nazis left. I really enjoyed watching this film because i have never seen anything real like this before.

  • Banipal Georges

    I think that “Rome, Open City” excels in the genre of Italian Neo-realism for its scenery, character design, plot, etc. I especially liked how the non-professional actors could act as well as the professional ones, merely because they just had to act as though it was their daily life. However, not only did they act the part, I felt as though they exceeded expectations and went above and beyond to be recognized as professional actors.
    Well, the setting and plot was very fitting at the time, so all of these actors probably easily had experiences like in the movie.
    The acting in this film is easily a great milestone in the history of cinema.

  • sharvi mehta

    The movie was pretty interesting with amazing actors and with clear concept. The scenes of a city Rome are outstanding. I found this movie more socialize. The poor people in the city who doesn’t have a bread to eat and to get that bread they are fighting with each other. This movie contains only few funny scenes. When the people were fighting for breads and all of sudden police officer came and a common guy commented on him that was funny in starting. The movie is based on realism, poor condition of a peoples who live there. The character which i like the most was a priest, his patients, loyalty, care for the people, smartness is simply amazing. I think the movie became great because of this priest, he played important role in this movie. Movie’s concept is clear.They used background sound matches to all the scene in this movie.

  • Brittany Ortiz

    Rome, Open City was probably the best example you could’ve shown our class that demonstrates each component of Italian neorealism. For example there was almost no plot in this movie much like there was in bicycle theives, as you explained. It was weird at first but felt more natural by the end. It was easy to see that the lives of each character had its own complexity, and rather than show that, the film let you see each story as you would if you were part of their lives rather than watching a well rounded character in every facet of his/her life. Every happening was as startling and abrupt as it would be in real life, there were no hints or clues, just life as it was in Italy at the time.
    It was shocking to know that most of the people in this film were not professional actors, but it makes sense because they lived it, they had no need to fake what thy already felt.

  • Manjoo Thakkar

    Manjoo Thakkar

    Rome, Open City, is a film of a common people and real locations, the theme of the communism, resistance, liberation, revenge, torture and religion is clearly seen in the film. Rossellini painted a clear picture of an ordinary people of Italy who work as a group especially to try and fight against the Germans who want to colonize them and take away their land from them. The performance of the priest, Francesco, Pina, Giorgio was outstanding. Especially, children played incredible role in the film. Although, Pina and Maria being sisters their personalities differ, Pina a family oriented person, love to spend her life with kids and her family on the other hand Maria who is more concerned about materialistic stuff and get indulged with luxuries life. The relationship with Pina’s son and her fiancé was very touching. The film is ultimately a hopeful vision of the future of Italy. It shows in the last scene when the older boy puts his arm around Pina’s son shoulder and they walk away from the fence, after the priest was executed.

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