Rossellini’s breakthrough film is not just a defining work of Italian neorealism, but a powerful anti-war statement.
Dir. Roberto Rossellini
1945 | Italy | Drama/War | 103 mins | 1.37:1 | Italian & German
PG (passed clean) for some disturbing scenes
Cast: Anna Magnani, Aldo Fabrizi, Marcello Pagliero
Plot: In Rome during WWII, Nazis attempt to arrest resistance leader Giorgio Manfredi. As he seeks refuge with friends, he must find a way to flee the city and find safety from the Nazi regime.
Awards: Won Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Source: Cinecitta Luce
Subject Matter: Moderate – Anti-war, Human Condition
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 14 Jul 2018
Although this is technically not the first film of the Italian neorealist movement, arguably the most influential film movement after the French New Wave in the 1960s, Rome Open City is considered one of its grand milestones, as significant as Vittorio De Sica’s later Bicycle Thieves (1948), and certainly the legendary Roberto Rossellini’s breakthrough work.
It is such a monumental film, not least because it was made as the war was reaching its inevitable conclusion, while spawning two other separate films that make up his ‘War Trilogy’—Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948).
Scripted during the war and based on real-life scenarios and figures that the writers encountered, Rome Open City is a harrowing and powerful anti-war statement. Its immediacy is all too apparent, a result of relying on a cast of mostly non-professional actors and shooting on location with the wartime ruins of Rome within sight—both of which have since become key elements of the post-war neorealist movement.
Rome Open City follows Giorgio Manfredi, a Resistance leader who seeks refuge in a friend’s home while plotting a way to escape from the Nazis. Although the plot centers on him, two other supporting characters are far more fascinating, played by Anna Magnani (as the wife-to-be of Giorgio’s ally) and Aldo Fabrizi (as a priest of a local church).
“It’s not hard to die well. The hard thing is to live well.”
Magnani’s heartbreaking performance is one of the film’s great triumphs—her face is an image of a thousand words, and notably her character’s desperation in a mid-sequence has been enshrined as one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. She would go on to star in Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) and Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962).
Fabrizi, on the other hand, plays his religious character with a sense of quiet determination, marked by values of virtue and dignity. His characterisation remains to be one of my favourite screen portrayals of a holy man operating in a world of cruelty and hate.
Rome Open City is no doubt in the company of such great anti-war films as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Paths of Glory (1957). However, because of the manner that it was made, as well as the context of its production, not to mention it doesn’t contain any traditional war or battle scenes, but instead focuses its wartime drama on a set of everyday faces, who struggle—with incredible courage—in the face of evil, that makes it such a unique and essential work.
It has undoubtedly laid some of the strongest groundwork for the kind of neo-neorealist or social realist world cinema that we encounter today.