In Nazi-occupied Rome, the Gestapo is hunting the ringleaders of the local Resistance movement, Manfredi and Francesco. The pursued men are hidden and assisted by the local people, including the local priest Don Pietro and Francesco’s fiancée, Pina, while the diabolical Major Bergmann tracks them down from the comfort of his office. Francesco is captured and driven away, and Pina killed by German troops in the ensuing chaos, only for partisans to liberate Francesco once again. Eventually, Don Pietro and Manfredi are betrayed, arrested and questioned by Bergmann. Manfredi is tortured to death by the Gestapo, but does not betray his comrades. In the final scene, Don Pietro is executed as a band of child partisans (including Pina’s son, Marcello) look on, ready to continue the struggle.
Roma città aperta/Rome, Open City occupies such a canonical position in film history that detaching oneself from received wisdom or preconception can require an effort of will. In the months following the Nazi withdrawal from Rome in June 1944, with the city’s film studios out of action, Roberto Rossellini took to the ruined streets with salvaged film stock to capture the recent traumas of occupation in their harrowing immediacy. By entwining itself within the events’ authentic urban spaces to register real-life experiences of everyday Italians, the film resisted Hollywood’s impending hegemony and offered a pole of identity for a renewed ‘national’ cinema. So goes the legend.
None of the above is false. As a record of fact, it tells a compelling and valuable story, whose significance for national culture and subsequent filmmaking should not be underplayed. With Italy on its knees, its nationhood shamed in the wake of Fascism, the Allies who took control of Rome unapologetically sought to overpower what was left of a local film industry with the politically ‘safe’ products of American cinema.1 By turning so directly to the Italian experience of war, Rossellini’s film therefore raised the possibility of an alternative, inward-looking trajectory: a social and national orientation that would become the touchstone for Italian cinema’s global redemption and make Roma città aperta the exalted founding text of the ‘neorealist’ aesthetic. Such a binary reading of Italy’s cinematic culture in the post-war years, however, conceals the complexities that surrounded this film’s emergence. The neorealist trend, for example, was not simply a parochial reaction to the approaching transatlantic behemoth, but a filmmaking style with roots in the Fascist era (Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione/Obsession (1943) is commonly located as the movement’s alternative starting point), and one which frequently borrowed from American narrative formats.2 Moreover, despite its ‘documentary’ stylistics (soon afterwards to be identified as one of the hallmarks of neorealist cinema), Roma città aperta is by no means an objective record of the Italian experience in these years. The film is in fact a meticulously constructed intervention in the national discourse.
This dramatic construction is most apparent when Rossellini deploys episodes of melodramatic or comic amplification, which are woven into the narrative structure for maximum impact. Much of the first half of the film is taken up by detailed character establishment, which introduces and polarises caricatured villains and fallible, sympathetic protagonists. Francesco and Pina share an intimate moment in the tenement stairwell, reminiscing about the past and expressing hopes and fears for the future. Francesco’s rousing words to her – ‘We’re fighting for something that must come true. It may be long and difficult, but there will be a better world for all our children: Marcello, and the one we are expecting’ – both emphasise the fact that she is pregnant with his child and link this fact to a brighter future free of tyranny. By so investing our hope in Pina as an emblem of regeneration, however, the filmmakers are setting up a cruel irony. The traumatic scene for which Roma città aperta is most commonly remembered comes barely halfway through the film, and enacts a dramatic turning point as character-based drama gives way to untrammelled brutality. Pina, the world-weary, salt-of-the-earth Italian (played by much-loved local film star Anna Magnani) is senselessly gunned down by an offscreen (and therefore faceless) Nazi gunman. In stark contrast to her powerlessness to alter the events around her, Major Bergmann exudes sinister omniscience, his antennae seeming to reach into each alleyway as he declares: ‘Every night I “stroll” through Rome without ever leaving this office’.
Bergmann’s role is however more complex than Harry Feist’s somewhat vaudevillian portrayal suggests. The film’s most significant element, from a cultural-political perspective, is its preoccupation with the contested memory of the Resistance. As an ideological counterpoint, the character of Bergmann operates as an important vehicle for this undertaking. When Manfredi’s prolonged ordeal at the hands of the Gestapo at last leads to his demise, Bergmann instructs his clerk to record the cause of death as a heart attack, and the deceased’s name as ‘Giovanni Episcopo’ (the alias Manfredi used when he was in hiding), so as not to give the Resistance another martyr. The film, of course, undercuts the Nazi’s words even as they leave his mouth, by openly showing both the cruelty of the torturers and the dignity of the victim. The cinematic techniques further enhance this sense that the film is bearing solemn testimony to this sacrifice. As the torture scene begins, the bound Manfredi and his interrogators are seen through a doorway, pointedly left open to force Don Pietro to watch the brutality. The positioning of the camera outside the torture chamber, only briefly at first registering the horror of what is to come before the shot cuts to the priest’s reactions, suggests an accidental glimpse and positions the viewer as an inadvertent witness to events intended to be hidden from public view. The process we see being enacted here is one with considerable significance for post-war Italy. By framing the very memory of Resistance sacrifice as an epistemological battleground, both Bergmann’s attempt to doctor the official record and Rossellini’s stylistic undermining of that attempt attest to the symbolic potency of the struggle against Nazism, and of its memorialisation.
In the immediate post-war period, the harrowing events of 1943–1945 offered Italians a compelling myth of national solidarity against a common enemy. Roma città aperta must be considered in this context, as a purposeful mediation of these events in the very moment at which they are passing into the realm of ‘history’ and attaining their singular discursive force. In this film, the ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism that briefly united Communists and Catholics, factory workers and middle classes, is deployed dramatically to stand in for the fortitude and dignity of the Italian people. Don Pietro exploits the fact that priests are granted right of passage during curfew to operate as a channel of communication between the insurgent cells, enmeshing the Church within the rebellion. Meanwhile, Major Bergmann disdainfully flicks through a pile of confiscated publications comprising the newspapers of each of Italy’s main political parties, aptly symbolising their burial of differences in opposition to his ilk: L’unità (Communists), Avanti (Socialists), Risorgimento liberale (Liberals), Il popolo (Christian Democrats) and L’italia libera (Action Party).
Even while the film methodically weaves this narrative of national unity, however, it betrays unease for Italy’s future. In an attempt to make his victims betray their pact, Bergmann hisses words of discord to each in turn. Don Pietro is told of Manfredi: ‘He’s a subversive and an atheist: your enemy!’ Manfredi is then told: ‘You’re a Communist. Your party has signed a treaty with reactionary forces. You’re marching together against us. But tomorrow, when you occupy Rome … will these monarchic officials stick by you?’ Doubtless, these lines serve the diegetic purpose of further emphasising the fortitude of the Italian spirit. Manfredi’s response is to spit in the Nazi’s face, and immediately afterwards his martyrdom is completed as he is trussed up in a Christ-like pose to be tortured to death. Yet Bergmann’s words are not simply diabolical Nazi propaganda; they also bespeak neuroses that Italy would soon be split down the middle. In this subtext lies a significant prescience.
Roma città aperta’s fusion of Catholic and Communist sentiment represents a concerted effort to bestride a chasm that would soon engulf Italian political life once Fascism had been defeated. The increasingly bitter ideological battle between the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Christian Democrats (DC) in the lead-up to the 1948 General Election would have a considerable influence upon how the memory of the war would be assimilated into the new Italy’s political landscape. As the events passed into memory, it was the Left above all political persuasions for whom the Resistance and its memorialisation would become a pole of identity and pride, but also a reminder of betrayal by erstwhile allies. It is partly for this reason, and despite the fact that the film actually downplays the Communists’ central role in the Resistance, that Roma città aperta became exalted in the annals of the political Left as much as in those of cinephilia. It simultaneously captures the heady promise of renewal and consensus fostered by the fragile alliance, while registering widespread fears amongst the Left that these hopes would be shattered once the DC, supported by America, assumed power. By the late 1940s, cinema had itself become one of Italy’s key political battlegrounds, as the socially progressive neorealist trend was championed by the PCI and condemned by the DC in equal measure. The legacy of Roma città aperta would be a controversial one.
In hindsight, Rossellini’s seminal film serves to render conceptions of ‘national cinema’ problematic. Insofar as it seeks to define ‘the nation’ at a moment of crisis, Roma città aperta certainly offers a valuable insight into Italy’s attempts to emerge from the Fascist era, and to tread a path out of the rubble of warfare and occupation. Despite its celebrated status as a panacea for the local industry, however, it was proposing just one among many visions of national reconstruction: one that, by advocating a ‘Popular Front’ consensus, would soon be swimming against the tide of history. The framing of the recent past was, at this pivotal moment in the negotiation of Italian national identity, an unavoidably divisive process. The film’s opening caption claiming that ‘any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental’ is therefore somewhat extraneous. Its relationship to the historical ‘reality’ of the events is much less important than its mode of representation: one of political memory being played out, and co-opted in the service of the present. Internationally, however, Roma città aperta was lauded as a trailblazer for a new realism, and there can be no doubting this film’s importance to subsequent cinema. Jean-Luc Godard, whose own early filmmaking practice owed much to the experimental approach of neorealism, put a seal on this legacy by declaring: ‘All roads lead to Rome, Open City’ (Brunetta 2009: 117).
1. Admiral Stone, the head of the Allied Military Government’s Film Board, publicly announced: ‘The so-called Italian cinema industry was invented by the fascists. Therefore it must be suppressed, as must be the instruments that incorporated this invention’ (Wagstaff 1995: 93).
2. Neorealism’s debt to transatlantic popular formats is most evident in the melodramatic emotional appeal of such ‘classics’ as I ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948) and Riso amaro/Bitter Rice (Giuseppe de Santis, 1949).
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Italy. Production Company: Excelsa Film. Director: Roberto Rossellini. Producer: Giuseppe Amato. Screenwriters: Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini. Cinematographer: Ubaldo Arata. Music: Renzo Rossellini. Editor: Eraldo Da Roma. Cast: Aldo Fabrizi (Don Pietro), Anna Magnani (Pina), Marcello Pagliero (Giorgio Manfredi), Harry Feist (Major Bergmann), Francesco Grandjacquet (Francesco), Vito Annichiarico (Marcello).]
Peter Bondanella, A History of Italian Cinema, London, Continuum, 2009.
Gian Piero Brunetta, The History of Italian Cinema, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009.
David Forgacs, Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta), London, British Film Institute, 2000.
Sidney Gottlieb (ed.), Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Christopher Wagstaff, ‘Italy in the Post-War International Cinema Market’, in Italy in the Cold War: Politics, Culture and Society 1948–1958, Christopher Duggan and Christopher Wagstaff (eds), Oxford, Berg, 1995, pp. 89–115.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.