Sometimes when films are billed as "classics", or "unmissable" they fail to live up to the hype. My Mum is likewise always suspicious when the reviews of a book use the word "achievement"in the publisher's blurb. Roberto Rossellini's "Rome, Open City", is somewhat weighed down with heady reviews, which both elevate expectations and make objective appreciation of the film difficult.
The film, made in 1945, concerns the Nazi occupation of the city during the latter stages of The Second World War - after the decline of the Italian Fascist State; and during the Allied Invasion of
Without giving away to many spoilers, Rossellini uses these characters (their lives, loves, families, etc) to write a a fictional account of life under occupation - which is based on real events. It is a tale of live, loss, betrayal, cruelty, death, defiance, painted against the backdrop of the inevitable destruction of the Third Reich.
Old films, especially those which date back this far, can seem desperately slow and contrived to contemporary audiences. Rome, Open City shows its age, but isn't slow or clunky; but is absorbing and moving - mostly due to the compelling acting of characters like Anna Magnani (as Sora Pina - embroiled in the struggle, as she is marrying into the Resistance), and Maria Michi (as Marina Mari), struggling with drug addiction, compromised loyalties, and treachery. The acid test for me in so any films is whether the plot and characters and good enough to make me care about the outcome. Rome, Open City passes this test absolutely.
Two aspects of the film will trouble contemporary audiences. The first is the bizarre staging of the
Rossellini brings his film to a climax, which is something akin to the New Testament gospels. As Manfredi is tortured in front of Dom Pietro; his sufferings and wounds (which he chooses to bear, rather than betray his fellow resistance fighters), save lives, and are deliberately filmed in a way which evokes the passion of Christ. (Spoiler alert!) Prior to the torture scene (which earns the film a (12) certificate - but which might disturb many an adult), the Nazi commander expressed his total confidence that a Nazi torturer could beat an Italian resister - on the basis of racial superiority. The fact that he then betrays no-one is not referenced, but the unspoken implication of the fallacy of racial theories thunders though the end of the film. Evil is once again trounced, not by superior fire-power but through redemptive suffering. This aspect of the film is powerful and profound.
The film, it is often claimed, was written in order to re-brand Italians in the wake of their calamitous experiences in the war, under Mussolini, Nazism, and Allied occupation. Rossellini wanted to make a film in which Italians were 'good', and who suffered for their goodness, alongside the other victims of Nazism. Tales of the French Resistance were well-known at this point, and the sufferings of the Jews and others in the camps was soon to come to light too. Rossellini wanted to make sure that the world knew that there were Italians too, who were suffering in order to redeem Europe from evil. Historians have made much of the fact that in order to achieve this he downplayed the role of the Italian fascists, and over-estimates that of the Nazi occupiers. Perhaps so, but nevertheless he achieves his goal of producing a gripping, sympathetic reading of Italian resistance to Nazism and Fascism.
On a personal side-note, my Grandfather fought in the Second World War, and spent the final part of it, guarding POW's in various camps in the UK, including one in Scotland. He told me that while some of the POW camps were high security, the job guarding the Italians was easy. In general, he said, the Italian POWs were relatively content to be there, had no desire to escape, let alone fight any more; and shared the universal opinion that Mussolini was a fool, best avoided until peace came. I suspect my grandfather would have understood Rossellini's remarkable film, better than me.