- Director: Roberto Rossellini
- Writers: Screenplay by Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Alberto Consiglio, and Robert Rossellini, Story by Sergio Amidei
- Starring: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Vito Annicchiarico, Nando Bruno, Harry Feist, and Giovanna Galletti
- Accolades: Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#74), 1946 Cannes International Film Festival – Palme d’Or, 1 Oscar nomination (Best Screenplay)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
Roma Cittá Aperta (English title: Rome, Open City) was not the first film of the “Italian Neorealism” movement, nor is it the probably the example most widely watched today (that is probably Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Bicicletta). But it is probably the first such movie to be seen widely internationally (and also the first Italian movie to make an international splash after World War II, period), and is thought of as having defined the basic parameters of the film movement. It was shot on the devastated streets of Rome in 1945, while the war was still going on, lit in some scenes with electricity “stolen” from American military installations, and shot partly on extra film donated by American film crews. Yet it feels more like a documentary than a shoestring production. The most famous scene, in which Anna Magnani’s character Pina is gunned down by the Nazis while chasing after a truck carrying her just-arrested boyfriend, was designated by the Italian government as the official national image of World War II. That’s despite it being, you know, fictional. It doesn’t feel like it.
Some history for those that may be unfamiliar with the details. Italy was ruled for well over a decade by the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, but that government retreated north in August 1943 under pressure from Allied bombing, declaring Rome an “Open City.” Between that time and the arrival of American ground troops in June 1944, Rome spent ten months under the hostile occupation of the Nazis. Only two months after the Americans arrived, director Roberto Rossellini and his collaborator Federico Fellini (who would later become even more famous than Rossellini) started working on the screenplay for Roma Cittá Aperta. This movie is an ensemble piece showing life during that time, particularly that of a few members of the resistance as well as some of the Nazis trying to catch them. It is a decidedly de-glamorized version of Rome, set in working class neighborhoods, entirely free of the landmarks seen all through Roman Holiday only a handful of years later.
Italian Neorealism reached international prominence in aftermath of the second World War, heavily influencing later film movements like the French New Wave. Its stories are set among the Italian working classes, often shot on the streets of its cities. Its proponents started out making movies without sets because they had to, then realized it lent their work an immediacy they had been looking for. There are scenes in Roma Cittá Aperta that are not so different from a Hollywood movie of the same era, but there are also moments of startling modernity, sudden uses of handheld camerawork that no American film at this time would have tried.
It is no coincidence that one of these moments is that street killing scene, where the most famous shot is a reverse dolly view of Magnani as her character’s shot, meant to depict the point of view of her communist-partisan boyfriend (Marcello Pagliero). A few moments later, she collapses in the arms of a priest who is a member of the Resistance movement (Aldo Fabrizi), in a pose that is extremely reminiscent of Jesus in Mary’s arms in Michelangelo’s Pietá. This application of high art to the wartime travails of the working classes is sort of the thesis statement of this movie and Neorealism in general.
Another major aspect of Neorealism was working with non-professional actors, who Rossellini and his collaborators thought would bring greater authenticity, and also, uncoincidentally, would be more likely to just do what they were told. Anna Magnani became the most famous of the professionals in the movie, known for portraying a sort of deep inner fire that led to her being nicknamed “La Lupa” or “The Wolf.” Her performance depicted how Italians wanted to see themselves. The other really well known actor in the movie is Aldo Fabrizi, who plays the Priest. If Magnani’s death is the best known scene of the movie, Fabrizi gets the emotional climax, when he finally loses his cool after seeing a resistance fighter tortured (with realism far beyond what an American film would have been able to show at this time). “Curse you, curse you, curse you!” he screams at the Nazi commander (Harry Feist), his priestly forgiveness completely running dry.
Some of the bones of this movie are not so different from a Hollywood movie that would be made around the same time. There are the heroic resistance fighters, on the run from the Nazis, and the girls that love them. But there is no possible happy ending here, nor any of the heroic victories you might expect. Roma Cittá Aperta does not have ambitions beyond providing accurate depictions of people in a time and place that had just existed, but no longer did. If you’re looking for a good time at the movies, this isn’t it, but I did find the whole thing really interesting.