Roma, Città Aperta / Rome, Open City
d. Roberto Rossellini / 1945 / Italy / 105 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
At the risk of offending ‘serious’ fans of European art cinema the world over, I have to admit that I’m not a giant fan of Roberto Rossellini. Sure he was married to Ingmar Bergman and they created Isabella but, well, he just seems to be a rather incomplete filmmaker. Maybe I’m missing something – or maybe I just haven’t seen enough of his work, or maybe I’ve simply seen the wrong films – but while his brilliance does occasionally shine through, Rossellini’s films always leave me with a vague, underlying feeling of dissatisfaction.
That said, I’m not questioning for one minute the pivotal importance of Rome, Open City to cinematic practices across the world, and I’m certain that, on its release in 1945, it must have seemed the strangest, most refreshing film ever made. It was, as is made clear by critics and academics the world over, the film that kickstarted a post-war revolution in European art cinema. Otto Preminger famously stated that Rome, Open City divided the history of cinema into two sections, everything that came before and that which followed. Indeed, as an exemplar of Italian Neo-Realism it exerted its profound influence upon a rash of European new waves, which in turn had their own weighty influence upon New Hollywood in the 1970s. The rest, as they say in the classics, is history.
But for me, the interest in Rossellini’s films lies not so much in his melodramatic flights of fancy – a criticism often leveled at Rome, Open City is that it more openly melodramatic than neo-realist – but in his niggling peripheral obsession with the kinds of abstract notions that dictate our everyday lives. In 1954’s Voyage to Italy, for instance, I was mostly interested in his treatment of ‘time’ and ‘history’ – dealing, as it did, with a modern English couple transplanted to rural Italy (complete with ‘old-fashioned’ customs) and their interactions with ancient Roman civilization and the nearby city of Pompeii, a place literally frozen in time and within its own histories.
In Rome, Open City, Rossellini displays a similarly peripheral preoccupation with equally abstract notions of religion and religiosity, framing it in opposition to the godless, demonic Nazi occupation of Rome during World War II. Individual and familial struggles against oppression are portrayed alongside the central struggle of the local Priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), a paternal figure – both literally and figuratively – who uses his privileged social position to transmit messages and smuggle money to aid the resistance. His fatherly duties expand beyond his role as local church leader to his role as protector of local children, and also to his role in the marriage between Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) and Pina (Anna Magnani).
Although Pina’s death at the hands of the Nazi’s prevents the marriage from taking place, the wedding is a site of clear interaction between religion and politics in Rome, Open City. Whilst Pina is a devout Catholic, Francesco is a committed Communist who shuns religion. He agrees to Don Pietro’s involvement precisely because he would rather be married by a nationalist priest than a fascist official. Perhaps there is something here that reflects the very nature of Rome itself; a city which exists at the epicentre of global Catholicism – a religious dictatorship if ever there was one – yet which is also separated from it by the walls of the Vatican. Despite its resolution in the late 1920s, the Roman Question hangs over both Rome and the portrayal of its inhabitants in Rossellini’s film.
The relationship between religion and politics is not only central to the narrative of this film, but also to how it was viewed and understood by wider audiences. On its release, the film was quick to receive endorsement from the Vatican, perhaps as a way of diverting attention from their collaboration with successive fascist regimes. In a similar sense, Rossellini himself had more than a few crosses to bare from his past, and it is from this perspective that his background tends to become somewhat more interesting than the films it inspired.
I find it interesting, for instance, just how often Rome, Open City is discussed almost as if it were Rossellini’s first film. It is perhaps a testament to the fact that, like any other historians, film commentators generally prefer their subjects to conform to nice, neat linear narratives. And yet if Rome, Open City exists as a film heavily invested in the politics of fascist oppression and unequivocal anti-fascism, it is useful to note that Rossellini was, for many years, a cog in Italy’s own facist propaganda machine under Benito Mussolini.
Before Rome, Open City signified the start of his Neo-Realist Trilogy, Rossellini had completed what became known as his Facist Trilogy, all made at Cinecittà (a studio originally designed to promote fascist ideals through cinema) and mostly in direct collaboration with various branches of Mussolini’s armed forces. It is not suprising that a close friendship with Vittorio Mussolini – film critic, producer and son of Il Duce – was precisely what allowed the relatively inexperienced Rossellini to infiltrate the higher echelons of the Italian film industry so early in his career.
In The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Robert E. Bondanella notes that the director was ‘relatively unconcerned with the moral issues associated with the Fascists’ hold on power in Italy until the war began to go very badly’. And despite Bondanella’s assessment that ‘almost all reputable critics are in agreement that very few, if any, Italian films made between 1922 and 1943 actually reflect pure fascist ideology’, buried beneath the complexity of Italy’s involvement in World War II and the politics of progaganda, is the suggestion that one (German) woman’s racial hatred is another (Italian) man’s nationalism.
The fact remains that far too little is made of Roberto Rossellini’s career under Benito Mussolini, and that – as Bondanella points out – Rossellini’s personal and intellectual links to the fascist regime remain the mark of a man possessing ‘naive, confused and often self-interested political values’ who, like many others, ‘suddenly discovered themselves Anti-Fascists’ at the downfall of Mussolini in July 1943. That said, I can’t help but think that – in relation to Rossellini’s early career – there is more than a hint of ‘when the going gets tough, the tough change sides’.