A legendary cinematic achievement, Rome, Open City betrays more than a hint of melodrama in its valorization of the Italian resistance to the Nazi occupation. Like many films of the Italian neorealist movement, Roberto Rossellini’s classic relies heavily on a binary moral structure and recognizable social types, masquerading battle-tested literary tropes as gritty realism to cinematize the brutalities of war for an audience living through its aftermath. Nevertheless, its justly celebrated documentary aesthetic and naturalistic performances, aided by the filmmakers’ budgetary restrictions and the ruinous state of the postwar Italian film industry, help the work achieve moments of devastating, near miraculous beauty.
Rome, Open City owes part of its emotional power to its mixture of politico-religious symbolism and quotidian humor, which manages to be both vaudevillian in its depiction of the Chaplinesque proletariat and understated in the script’s witty dialogue and subtle dramatic irony. Malnourishment elicits laughter when the masses liberate pastries from the bakery as if they were prisoners of the Bastille and conceal them from the authorities like they would members of the resistance. Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), the token soccer-playing priest (every European coming-of-age film seems to have one), spends much of his time horsing around with local preteen hooligans. Conversely, the desperate fight for national liberation has transformed these street urchins into child soldiers. This is just one of countless ways in which the film became a springboard for the Nouvelle Vague, as similarly noble young ruffians would later make their way into the works of Truffaut, Godard, and others. They’re at once adorable and forbiddingly austere: Rossellini plays domestic child abuse as comedy, while portraying a potential child suicide bomber with lucid compassion. Though he himself is the commander of the other child soldiers, the boy must be swayed from his desperate purpose by the resistance for a possibly more gruesome fate in fascist hands.
As played by the magnificent Anna Magnani, the pious Pina is the film’s archetypal earth goddess, a widowed Madonna and pregnant mother of two who plans to marry a resistance fighter after losing her first husband to the fascist war machine. She bursts with maternal caritas and insatiable vivacity, the bags under her eyes causing them to burn with an even brighter inner light on screen; her demure role does little to prevent her from stealing every scene she’s in. Few actresses to this day glow with such natural radiance and appear so wholly in their element on screen as Magnani does. As the unofficial field commander of Rome’s fifth column of fed-up housewives, she embodies all Italian women, while her husky voice and natural curves project a refreshingly frank sexuality even by contemporary standards.
As head of the resistance, the atheistic communist engineer Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero) is nonetheless spiritually captivated by the Catholic Pina, who has the grace to question her faith in such trying times while still convincing her atheist fiancée to be married by a priest. Her faith stands in stark opposition to Giorgio’s lover, Marina (Maria Michi), a showgirl and prostitute whose lack of faith causes her to betray the resistance to the fascists. Though the priest is a vital member of the resistance, Rosselini seems to mock Don Pietro’s prurience regarding sexual matters. Yet the director himself makes an explicit connection between loose lips and loose women. The effeminate Gestapo commander aside, the film’s real villains are the Italian traitors who sold out their countrymen for material prosperity. Or, as Marina puts it, for mere survival. In her case, this means drugs and fur coats, yet Rossellini’s sensitivity to the sacrifices and devastating choices that women have to make under occupation complicates such apparent greed, revealing an underlying lack of freedom beneath such seemingly deliberate decisions.
In contrasting Pina and Marina, Rossellini shows that it takes a saint to maintain any kind of moral dignity in this debased yet somehow still holy Catholic world. The Italians know how to depict a pietà, and the film provides one of the most stunning, albeit unorthodox, examples of the subject this side of the Renaissance when Don Pietro holds a dead Magnani in his arms on a crowded Roman street recently emptied of fascist soldiers. It’s a profound lamentation for a world teetering on the abyss, caught between its ancient faith and the approaching secular order. While the atheistic Giorgio is the film’s ostensible hero, it’s Magnani’s otherworldly passion that stays with the viewer when the screen goes dark.