Rom, Åben By
For a self-styled movie-archaeologist like myself there is nothing better than to find in an old movie a document of its time. Sometimes I am just looking at cars or phones or hairstyles, but even better when the film tells of the age in which it was made. For that reason alone “Roma, Città Aperta” is a treasure throve.
This film is widely heralded as the first film of Italian neorealism. I must admit that before watching this film I was not entirely sure what that label covered and I feared for something boring. No need to fear though. Italian neorealism in the incarnation of “Roma, Città Aperta” has a nerve that comes from an unprecedented, almost documentary nakedness. The people portrayed are very real, many actors are hardly actors, often just random passersby, the sets are actual streets, buildings and apartments and the story itself is contemporary and highly relevant for the period in which it was made. All this could be both good and bad, but in this case the coin is flipped the right way because it is so well done and because the story is compelling.
“Roma, Città Aperta” or “Rome, Open City” as it is called in English, was filmed shortly after the liberation of Rome and before the war proper had even ended. As such the filmmaking suffered all the hardships of war time, but as it turned out this was an advantage to the film. Lack of film stock meant that the end-product used a mélange of bits and pieces that the crew was able to hustle and gives the film a gritty look. All scenes show exactly how war-torn Rome looked. This is no reconstruction, but perfectly authentic, and the people are exactly the same. An atmosphere pervades this film that is no act, but the zeitgeist of Rome 1944-45. They may have been liberated, but they remember yesterday when the Germans were in charge. I am not sure this is what they wished for when they set out to make the movie, but circumstances and general deprivation made it the way it this.
The story itself takes place only months before the liberation of Rome. It is on the face of it a tribute to the martyrs of the resistance against the German occupation, determined men set against the evil Nazi´s. But in the best parts of it it is a portrait of quite real people in difficult circumstances. The humanity of this portrait is the strong side of this film. We follow Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) and Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) who are both active in the Resistance and the women around them, primarily Francesco’s fiancé Pina (Anna Magnani) and Marina (Maria Michi), the girlfriend of Giorgio. Both Giorgio and Francesco are eventually caught by the Germans, but with very different results. Tying the group together we have the priest don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who is active in the Resistance from a charity point of view. He helps those that need it the most. He is also the priest who is supposed to marry Pina and Francesco.
Everything goes haywire on the day of the wedding. Acting on a tip from Marina the Germans search the building where Pina and Francesco live. As Francesco is taken away we get the most heartbreaking scene of the film. Pina, frustrated, angry and desperate wrench herself free of the Germans and rushes after the car carrying Francesco. She succumbs in a shower of machinegun fire in front of her little son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), who cries out: “Mama!” before he is caught by don Pietro. That scene is so poignant it is hard to describe. Of course it is piled sky high: It is their wedding day, he is arrested and she is shot down in front of her son. We are provoked, but it works. I have seen that scene several times now and I cry every time.
While Francesco is freed by the Resistance, Giorgio and don Pietro comes to a sad end as well, again at the hand of Marina. Giorgio is tortured to death and don Pietro is brought before a firing squad. Those deaths are poignant as well, but are also more stylized. Both are representing the brave resistance fighter who dies for the cause without betraying their secrets to the Germans. They are not innocents like Pina, but soldiers, for God (don Pietro) and the people (Giorgio Manfredi, the socialist)
Marina is an interesting case. She is the image of a person who to protect and care for herself does what she finds necessary, in this case betraying her friends. The shell she wears to protect herself against the implications of her betrayal however wears thinner and thinner until it seriously hits her what she has done as she faces the corpse of the tortured Giorgio. This was the price of her lifestyle and her good looks.
The only part of the film that does not hold up so well is that involving the Germans. They seem unreal and more of a symbol than actual characters. Their talk is full of clichés and the character of Bergman (Harry Feist), the Gestapo chief, is altogether too metrosexual to be really frightening. The same with the cold and cynical Ingrid and the disillusioned Hauptman Hartmann. They are icons rather than people. I suppose an Italian film crew had an easier time relating to ordinary Italians turned guerilla than their oppressors.
“Roma, Città Aperta” is a film with powerful impact. It is not subtle in its message and the instruments can seem heavy-handed, but the style, the story-telling technique and the humanistic insight into these people is magnificent. I love this film and I cannot wait to see some more Italian neorealism.
I should mention that the DVD comes with an interesting documentary where we follow Vito Annicchiarico, the boy Marcello in the film, as he visits the locations 60 years later and happen to meet some of the people where extras on the set. An interesting and refreshing way to make a behind-the-camera feature.