(Rome, Open City)
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production: Excelsa Film; black and white, 35mm; running time: 100 minutes; length 9,586 feet. Released September 1945, Rome. Filmed in part during the liberation of Rome by the Allies, the remainder shot during early 1944. Filmed in and around Rome, and in improvised studios at the "via degli Avignonesi" (Liborio Capitani) and at the home of Sergio Amidei.
Screenplay: Sergio Amidei with Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini, from an original story by Sergio Amidei in collaboration with Alberto Consiglio and Roberto Rossellini; photography: Ubaldo Arata; editor: Eralda da Roma; production designer: R. Megna; music: Renzo Rossellini.
Cast: Anna Magnani ( Pina ); Aldo Fabrizi ( Don Pietro Pellegrini ); Marcello Pagliero ( Giorgio Manfredi, alias Luigi Ferraris ); Harry Feist ( Major Bergmann ); Maria Michi ( Marina Mari ); Francesco Grandjaquet ( Francesco, the typist ); Giovanna Galletti ( Ingrid ); Vito Annichiarico ( Marcello, son of Pina ); Carla Revere ( Lauretta ); Nando Bruno ( Agostino ); Carlo Sindici ( Treasurer from Rome ); Joop van Hulzen ( Hartmann ); Akos Tolnay ( Austrian deserter ); Eduardo Passarelli ( Police sergeant ); Amalia Pelegrini ( Landlady ).
Award: Cannes Film Festival, Best Film, 1946.
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* * *
Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta emerged from the ashes of World War II to become Europe's first post-war masterpiece, and in doing so demonstrated once again an increasingly accepted axiom of filmmaking: cinema is perhaps the only one of the major art forms in which scarcity and deprivation periodically unite with genius to produce technical innovations that drastically influence the course of the art form for generations to follow. For example, the filmless experiments (caused by scarcities of film stock) of the Soviet Union's Kuleshow workshop, between 1922 and 1924, produced the concept of montage and led to the great works of Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein. Somewhat earlier, in Germany, director Robert Wiene utilized painted backdrops and shadowy lighting induced by a power failure to create The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and popularize the film style known as Expressionism. Similarly, Rossellini, trying to produce a film in 1945 with fragments left from an industry decimated by war, pioneered a style that became known as neorealism, the influence of which can still be seen in films as diverse as Ermanno Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980).
Roma, città aperta , which was begun within two months of the Allied liberation of Rome, was actually conceived and planned several months earlier when Rossellini and some colleagues were dodging Nazi patrols to avoid being conscripted for military service on the side of the Fascists. In a purely professional sense, the attempt to make the film itself should have been doomed: Rossellini could obtain a permit from the allied administrators to make a documentary film only, and the prohibitive cost of the sound film on the black market virtually mandated the use of cheaper stock normally reserved for silent films. In addition, all of the performers with the exception of Anna Magnani, a sometime music hall performer, were nonprofessionals.
The resulting film, unlike anything produced before, turned these seeming drawbacks into tenets of a major new mode of expression— neo-realism—which shook the Italian film industry from its doldrums and returned it to the forefront of cinematic innovation. But, Roma, città aperta' s employment of this mode of representation was not the end product of the application of conscious artistic principle in the manner of the less influential Ossessione (1943), which many feel was the real harbinger of neo-realism. Rossellini's version of the form placed heavy emphasis on the re-creation of incidents in, whenever possible, the exact locales in which such events had taken place and accordingly spotlighted the everyday occurrences of Italian life. It also featured real people in the actors' roles which served to convey a sense of the immediacy of the post-war Italian experience.
Yet, several features of Roma, città aperta make it difficult to classify its director as simply or purely a neo-realist, particularly given the way that the form was subsequently defined by such filmmakers as Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, and others who took up the style in the late 1940s. Its plot is highly melodramatic in the worst sense of the word. Characters are clearly defined as either good or evil according to the strength of their commitment to a better tomorrow for Italy or, conversely, by their lack of faith in themselves and their cynicism in adhering to an obviously corrupt ideology.
Rossellini makes little pretence at objectivity in rendering even the surface appearance of things which characterized later neorealistic works. His employment of his brother Renzo's music is emotionally manipulative in a number of scenes, while, in other instances, certain images represent a definite intrusion of the director's personal feelings. His use of babies and children, for example, as an embodiment of Italy's hopes for the future not only shapes our anguish in a scene such as the one in which pregnant Anna Magnani is murdered but it also reaffirms the validity of the sacrifice and the Italian cause in the final scene when the children are neatly juxtaposed with a shot of the dome of St. Peter's as they leave the execution of the priest Don Pietro.
Although these overly dramatic inconsistencies make if difficult to classify Roma, città aperta as a textbook example of the mode of expression it popularized, such contradictions actually heighten its powerful depiction of the conflicting realities inherent in the struggle against fascism. Rossellini's shifting perspectives alternating between comedy and pathos when focused upon a select number of crucial episodes in the lives of some real people effectively isolates a specific historical reality that exerted a profound effect upon filmgoers of the late 1940s.
Though the grainy, black-and-white images of Roma, città aperta are at least one step removed from actuality, conforming instead to a verity appropriate to documentary films, they promulgate a very real social humanism that pervades the entire body of Rossellini's work and transcends the narrow boundaries of specific modes of expression. The film is ultimately a hopeful vision of the future of Italy and indeed of mankind in general, and while it establishes techniques that would subsequently evolve into filmmaking codes, it reflects more the personality of its director and his belief in innate goodness than it does a rigid ideology of realistic representation.
—Stephen L. Hanson