In Rome, Open City, though Nazi’s embody the enemy and our rebel protagonist Manfredi is fighting a just cause, it is worth noting that the time period is when Rome is under Nazi occupation. This is men, women and children rebelling against the government – the sentiment “one man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter” is fitting. The script was written merely two months after the end of World War II, with production beginning in 1945. The state of Rome is what the Nazi’s left behind, and the cast and crew featured experienced, many first-hand, the reality of Nazi dictatorship.
Freedom-fighter Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) is sought after by the German SS troops. He hides in a shared house alongside Pina (Anna Magnani) and Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), a couple due to be married. This group of resistance fighters includes Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) and Pina’s son. Every character has a story to tell. A child joins his friends to bomb. Pina loots a bakery to feed a family. Indeed, Manfredi has his own history and is a legend to his peers. The humble and quiet Don Pietro uses his role as a priest to support the cause also. In one sequence, a house is raided and Don Pietro knocks a man out with a saucepan to convince the guards he is praying for a sick man. The sequence is comic and it is no surprise that Aldo Fabrizi was a famed comedian himself before cast in this role by writer Federico Fellini.
The final act becomes a stark reminder as to the true horror of war. A key character, Manfredi’s girlfriend Marina (Maria Michi), double-crosses her lover. We become acutely aware of the hardships of the city. A small fortune could be earned by giving away locations and the whereabouts of known felons. Life and death are played close to each other as, in a crowded city street, a woman is shot down without a thought. While in one scene there is a playful joke (as a football hits the Priest in the head), the next is tragic and made more than poignant as the story is based on accounts of those who were in Rome at the time.
Rome, Open City is a historical document. In its immediacy, it surpasses the many accounts of World War II we are told are definitive. The glorification of US troops in Saving Private Ryan and poetic rendering of The Pianist are all cited as extraordinary examples of filmmaking – but they don’t have the brutal reality and truth that breaks through in Rome, Open City. Martin Scorsese tells us how it is the “most precious moment of film history”. Indeed, director Rosselini introduced the world to Italian neo-realism with Rome, Open City, preceding Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. And today, it still captures the moment. We know that the resistance against Nazi rule was not only on the battlefields, but on the streets of occupied territory too. Thank Roberto Rosselini for making that known – and for the ripple effect it had in Italy, and then across the world.