By Bob Light
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 389

Rome Open City

This article is over 7 years, 10 months old
Director Roberto Rossellini, re-released 7 March
Issue 389

In the spring of 1944 Italy was caught up in a maelstrom of violence and destruction. The Allied armies were fighting their way up from the South, the Germans occupied the rest of the country with their customary savagery, while the remnants of Mussolini’s fascist forces were conducting a psychotic bloodfest anywhere they could.

In the middle of this perfect storm the urban and rural working class of the North rose up. By 1945 millions of ordinary Italians had liberated their regions, beating the Nazi war machine and purging the fascists. In his book The Italian Resistance, Tom Behan describes it like this:

“The story of the Italian resistance movement is the story of how ordinary people…played a key role in ending a system which seemed…totally unbeatable. It is a story of how a society which seemed extremely stable and controlled…suddenly exploded from below with such mass activity that for a while everything seemed possible.”

This is the story that Roberto Rossellini dramatises so movingly in Rome Open City. The film was actually made in the heat of the battle on the streets of Rome in the months before and after the city’s liberation. The German soldiers we see marching through Piazza di Spagna in the opening shots were sent by Adolf Hitler and not by Central Casting.

It is a far from perfect film and it shows its age in any number of ways. Rossellini was a recovering Catholic so his image of the New Italy has a priest at his centre. His story is also suffused with the understain of Catholic moralism so Nazi collaborators are shown not only as traitors but as “sexually deviant” as well.

More generally, some of the sets and some of the dialogue are clunky, the “comic relief” (scripted by Federico Fellini no less) is strictly Chuckle Brothers level. But as Engels might have said those who want a pure revolutionary movie will spend a long time watching TV.

And Rome Open City for all its flaws was and is an example of revolutionary film making. It brilliantly captures that sudden explosion from below as ordinary Italians fought to establish a New Italy. And in the process a New Cinema was created because Rossellini’s film ushered in the Italian Neo-Realist movement.

This would produce some individually magnificent movies but it also forged the template for socialist film makers from Pontecorvo through Satyajit Ray to Ken Loach and David Simon of The Wire.

In the end a tag-team of Catholic cynicism and Stalinist duplicity killed the revolt from below, and Italy was made safe for FIAT, the Mafia and Bunga-Bunga parties. But in Rome Open City at least we have a promissory note of what might have been.

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