There's probably not much that hasn't been said yet about Roberto Rossellini's fourth feature film and one of the rallying cries of post-war Italian neo-realism. But it's important to underline just how, 70 years on, Rome, Open City remains a stupendously modern film, its combination of genre drama and topical urgency resolving itself in a more austere but no less complex predecessor of the contemporary mosaic film as practised by Tarantino or Iñárritu.
This tale of the days of Rome's German occupation, shot on the streets of the Italian capital with a cast of mostly non-professionals and film scrounged here and there while WWII was still taking place, is not so much a traditional linear narrative as a "relay race" of episodes orbiting the hardships of life in an occupied city. From Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), the point man for the resistance whose hunt by German troops sets the ball rolling, Mr. Rosselini takes us to Pina (Anna Magnani), the former factory worker trying to make ends meet as best as she can, and from her the film moves, through her young son Marcello (Vito Annichiarico), to Father Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), the kindly Catholic priest whose involvement in the resistance goes much deeper than it seems.
Working within the confines of an ever-shifting circle, Mr. Rossellini creates an impressionistic mosaic of lives in the balance whose wartime background remains eerily resonant and gains an impressive allegorical weight with the time since gone by; leaping fleetly from one character to the next, it prefers to confront the issues of loyalty, morality and humanity head-on, without necessarily becoming judgmental about the characters' motivations. There is, in truth, a sense of operatic drama throughout, but played within a chamber stage, reduced to dramatically shot and almost casually played conversations that seem to follow naturally from what came before, without necessarily working within the restricted framework of a traditional narrative.
It is, of course, a fascinatingly dialectical work as is wont for the director - the constant seesawing between the spiritual and the earthly, as seen in the film's own shift between characters from different walks of life, or in the highly dramatic third act tableau at the German headquarters where everything that really matters comes through purely cinematic means.If the individual episodes that make up the bigger picture are by now staples of the WWII/resistance drama, it was not so when Rome, Open City premiered shortly after the war's end, and the apparent spontaneity with which the film follows its characters wherever they may lead remains one of its greatest strengths and keeps it still fascinating 70 years on.
ROMA CITTÀ APERTA
Cast Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Vito Annichiarico, Nando Bruno, Harry Feist, Francesco Grandjacquet, Maria Michi, Marcello Pagliero, Edoardo Passarelli, Carlo Sindici, Akos Tolnay, Joop van Hulzen
Director Roberto Rossellini; screenwriters Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini; cinematographer Ubaldo Arata (b&w); composer Renzo Rossellini; art director Rosario Megna; editor Eraldo da Roma; production company Excelsa Film
Screened March 20th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)