Filmed in the months following V-E Day, and nebulously set sometime in the year before it, Rome Open City was Roberto Rossellini’s first attempt to grapple with the lingering effects of World War II. It is one of the director’s great rubble symphonies, forming an ad-hoc trilogy with Paisán and Germany Year Zero, which taken together explore the downfall of the European Axis in all three phases, respectively: before, during, and after. Rome Open City also boasts one of cinema history’s great legends, surrounding the circumstances of its production. Story goes that Rossellini overcame the scarcity in postwar times—what precious little film stock produced during the conflict inevitably made its way into the hands of propaganda machines, and even in postbellum days, there was scarcely any left over for commercial production—cobbled the film together using whatever leftover scraps of film he could find. The scarcity story explains why many shots are improperly exposed, and the effect of blown-out or murky cinematography supposedly lends Rome Open City the weight of documentary realism (the reasoning being shabby=truth; pretty=artifice, which when truly interrogated, emerges just as arbitrary any other of cinema’s conventions). Problem is: the legend might not true. David Forgacs’ BFI monograph on the film supposedly implodes the hardscrabble production tale by suggesting the original camera negative consisted of a few specific film stocks, not a scattershot multitude; the visual imperfections are now thought to be the result of shoddy labwork when the negative was developed.
Still, even without the myth of Rossellini as visionary laboring against and ultimately transcending his material limitations, Rome Open City is a fine work in spite of its politics, showing flashes of the aesthetic and heart-rending humanism that would find fuller and more subtle expression in his next two films. I hate to keep hammering on it, but Rossellini’s postwar stance, more forcefully felt here than anywhere, is one of queasy and staunch collaboration denial. Rome is exclusively populated by earnest, hardworking folks, perhaps guilty of petty immoralities—really, who could indict the starving mob ransacking a profiteering bakery?—but on the whole sincere, ethical, religious, and intractably defiant of the occupying force. For their part, the Nazis are decadent, immoral, and indifferent, a band of rapacious, closeted homosexuals hell-bent on torturing the daylights out of the Partisans. Rossellini’s grappling with his country’s difficult and uncomfortable Fascist legacy, and so I’m inclined to understand his blunt polarities, especially in an era when rhetorical subtlety was scarce across the board; this is not to condone Rossellini’s approach, but rather to appreciate where it comes from. Rome Open City can be seen as a necessary myth to buoy the country out of a particularly fraught period of his history (though the film was relatively unsuccessful at home in its original run). However in such storytelling, he does chip away at this marbled block of morality not with a fine chisel, but with a brutal jackhammer. (“Do you think Americans exist?” asks one dejected Roman; “It seems so,” another replies, as the camera tilts up to an apartment building whose top floors have been obliterated by Allied bombs.)
In this spirit of persecution, Rome Open City ripples with unease, as a resistance leader is rousted out of bed by a pre-dawn SS patrol. Manfredi finds his way into the refuge of his underground friends, and the story deflects slightly, onto a widowed pregnant mother on the eve of her wedding and a benevolent, rotund priest who becomes a particularly effective errand-boy for the Partisans because he’s naturally above suspicion. In absolute terms the stances each takes are verboten—particularly the out-of-wedlock kid thing—but the film is about the war’s exigent moral relativism and probing its acceptable limits. Amidst all the despair, poverty and hunger, which Rossellini depicts with relentless exactitude, petty jealousies arise, mostly in the form of Manfredi’s lover Marina who can’t get past the idea that the resistance could relegate her charms to the second tier. She exacts some shocking—yet immediately regretted—revenge, and it occurs to me that though Rome Open City is hailed as the father of neorealism (nonprofessional actors, location shooting, etc. being among its most readily assimilated traits), the emotional excesses and machinations of its characters make the film play more like melodrama. It all ends badly of course, during which Rossellini unleashes a handful of breathless sub-human atrocities made all the more potent by their simple execution. Show me someone who isn’t shattered by a Nazi moll stripping the overcoat off a prostrate Mariana overcome with grief, or a cadre of kids marching downhill to face another day of Rome strewn with ruins, and you’ll find someone who’s insensible to sunlight, air, puppy dogs, and ice cream.