BACK-STORY: “Rome, Open City” is a cinematic masterpiece by acclaimed director Roberto Rossellini. It was set and filmed in Italy in 1945 during the waning days of Nazi occupation. It was shot in the streets of Rome. The crude look to the cinematography was the result of the lack of funding, the damaged studio, and the circumstances. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. It is a landmark in the Italian neorealist movement. These films were noted for a general atmosphere of authenticity, immediacy as in being shot on location, use of nonprofessionals in roles, documentary style cinematography, and children in major roles.
OPENING: The situation is established as German soldiers are marching and singing through the streets of Rome. Soldiers come to arrest Resistance leader Manfredi (Marcello Paglieri). He escapes.
|Pina and Don Pietro|
SUMMARY: Manfredi meets with a Catholic priest named Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi). He asks the father to meet a contact and deliver some money which lets us know Don Pietro is part of the underground. Also part of the movement is a pack of young boys who blow things up in acts of sabotage.
While some daring Romans fight the occupiers, most Romans try to lead normal lives. This group is typified by Pina (Anna Magnani). She is the pregnant fiance of a communist Resistance member named Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet). They are getting married the next day. Pina’s son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico) is the leader of the young saboteurs.
|the truck's view|
The Roman police chief meets the Gestapo head who looks like Pee Wee Herman’s evil father. He is effete and slimy. They are working together to nab Manfredi. Manfredi is hiding at Pina’s (way to go Einstein – hide at the pregnant soon-to-be-married’s place). Suddenly the building is surrounded and Manfredi and Francesco are arrested. As they are taken away in a truck, Pina chases and is gunned down in a powerful scene made more shocking by its proximity to the comic relief of Don Pietro hitting a talkative grandpa over the head with a frying pan to shut him up.
In a brief and unrealistic scene, the Resistance ambushes the truck and rescues the duo. Francesco and Manfredi take refuge with a tart named Marina (Maria Michi). Another unwise choice for a host because Marina is on drugs and her dealer is a lesbian German agent who is so stereotypically villainous you would cross the street if you saw her approaching on the sidewalk. (Unless, of course, you’re into evil lesbians.) The lesbian keeps Marina in the type of clothes an Italian floozy wears.
|Pee Wee's pop and Sappho's spawn|
Don Pietro is arranging for Manfredi to hide in a monastery when the Gestapo arrive and they are arrested. Marina gets a new coat. At Gestapo headquarters, Manfredi is taken to the torture room by Pee Wee’s father and Don Pietro is forced to watch, but we don’t get to. Boo! All we hear is moans and then suddenly a brief shot of a flame. Manfredi dies pretty easily for a hardened Resistance leader. Meanwhile, Germans in the adjacent lounge are playing poker and listening to a piano. Get it? One agent refers to the Italians as a slave race. Manfredi will talk because he is inferior. A sophisticated German named Hartmann (Joop van Hulzen) disagrees and contends that all Germans want to do is kill. This hatred will destroy Germany and there is no hope. He is apparently channeling Rossellini.
|torturer and torture room|
CLOSING: Don Pietro is taken to the execution site. His last words are “It’s not difficult to die, it’s difficult to live.” The Italian firing squad misses because they are an Italian firing squad. Just kidding. They miss because they don’t want to shoot a priest. You have to draw the line somewhere. Hartmann kills Don Pietro. All this is witnessed by the sabotage boys. They walk off into the brighter Italian future.
Acting = C
Action = 4/10
Accuracy = hard to say
Realism = C+
Plot = C
Overall = C
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Certainly, if they are a cinephile. It is not a hard core war movie. It has no graphic violence or language. It has some strong female characters and is balanced in portraying the effects of the war on Italian women. Unfortunately, two of the three women are stereotypically loathsome.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is supposedly based on real events as told to Rossellini by actual Resistance members. This makes it hard to verify. Let’s assume the events in the film actually happened. That is plausible. The movie does not depict anything that is obviously ridiculous or improbable. Even the young boys sabotaging the German war effort is based on reality.
One of the characters (Don Pietro) is clearly based on a real person. Don Pieto Morosini was a Catholic priest who was part of the Resistance. My research could not confirm any of his actions in the movie, but the death scene is close to his execution. The last words are authentic. The firing squad did miss. The killing was actually done by an Italian officer, not a German. A telling decision by Rossellini? He does have characters that are collaborators, but overall the movie is lenient toward the Italian public.
CRITIQUE: “Rome, Open City” is a cinematic classic and deserves its fame. It has an immediacy to it that makes it unique, especially for back then. It has been best described as looking like a newsreel. The cinematography is not jaw dropping, but if you know the back-story, it’s remarkable. Rossellini had to overcome such obstacles that you have to admire the finished product. The blending of film stocks is a standout feature. Rossellini had to use what was available. However, there’s the rub. If you don’t know the full story behind the production, the movie does not have the same impact.
The acting is what you would expect from a production like this. Fabrizi is the top performer. His Don Pietro is humane, humorous, and a hero. He provides the comic relief like the frying pan silencing. There is also a whimsical scene involving a naked statue. Without him, the movie would have been too bleak. The rest of the cast is average and many are playing stereotypes. For a movie of such consequence, it is perplexing why Rossellini would include such sore thumbs like the Gestapo chief and the lesbian agent. You would not expect hissable villains. But I suppose if I had lived through the Nazi and fascist days, I might put a vampirish lesbian and an effeminate torturer in also.
The themes are basic. Good versus evil. Normal people doing heroic things because the situation calls for it. Civilians trying to live their lives in wartime. Freedom is worth dying for. None of this is ground-breaking. The plot does not match the production. If it did, this would be a masterpiece. As it is, the movie could have done with more concentration on the more unorthodox elements like the children saboteurs.
CONCLUSION: Once again I am confronted with a movie that must be highly rated by critics because of its historical importance moreso than its actual quality. It is assuredly a must-see for anyone interested in the history of cinema and specifically Italian neorealism, but purely as a war movie it is nothing special. I admire what Rossellini went through and the movie is truly a great accomplishment. This must have been a large part of the reasoning by the Military History magazine panel of experts. It could be argued that it is the #25 most important war movie ever made, but you cannot replace” important” with “greatest” or “best” and even put it in the Top 100. It will not make my list of the 100 Best because I am not judging the films on importance. I am looking at two main factors: historical accuracy / realism and quality. “Rome, Open City” does not make a case for itself in either area. I would not put it ahead of the other Resistance movies I have reviewed: Army of Crime, Flame and Citron, Black Book, and Army of Shadows (none of which made the Greatest 100). All of those are more entertaining than "Rome, Open City".
For those upset with this review, I am not a trained movie critic and did not go to film school. However, I am true to what I call myself and I will not bow to the film intelligentsia.