Rome, Open City — ★★★★
Thanks to the Austin Film Society, I got to see Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 war drama Rome, Open City on the big screen last night. It was made during a very brief and specific window late in the war when the Germans, who had occupied Rome after Mussolini was overthrown and Italy made a separate peace with the Allies, retreated from the advancing Americans. Rossellini made the picture on the fly in the newly-liberated city while the war was still underway. His actors used SS uniforms which reportedly caused some confusion and alarm among Italian passers-by: were the Germans back, had Allied gains been reversed? Fortunately no, but the memory of the German occupation was still very fresh, and Rossellini recaptures the tension of it for this movie.
What Rossellini wanted was a sort of cinéma vérité, a collection of snapshot vignettes, and I think that would have been ideal. The movie that emerged after rewrites — some of which were the work of Federico Fellini — is a little more traditional: it’s a femme fatale story, a tale of wartime heroics, a romantic tragedy. But it takes place among poor people and the working middle class, a social setting that anticipates the Italian neorealism movement Rossellini would help to define.
Partway through there is a conversation between the two central characters, a priest and a pregnant woman, that I interpret as an acknowledgment of Italian war guilt. The woman wonders whether God sees the suffering of the Italian people, who must steal bread to survive. The priest responds to the effect that, yes, God sees their suffering, but allows it because they deserve it. He does not specify whether he means that the Italians earned their current plight because of Mussolini and their alliance with the murderous Nazi regime or for the general sinfulness inherent to all humans (in the priest’s worldview), but I think the former is a reasonable assumption. Similarly, the Nazi antagonists discuss the historical context of their “master race” ideology, and the example of World War I is conjured, not as a foreshadowing of eventual German defeat but as a somber observation that history has repeated itself and nothing has been learned. The film certainly casts Italians as heroes and as victims of German oppression, but the conversation between the priest and the pregnant woman reveals a long-range vision, a historical reflectiveness, and a cool-headed clarity that are striking to find among residents of a city in life-and-death turmoil. Whether this conversation is the work of Rossellini, Fellini, or cowriter Sergio Amidei, it is a remarkable moment in a remarkable film.