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This film has several things in common with both The Third Man (1949) and A Canterbury Tale (1944), in being in black and white, made shortly after (even during, in the case of Powell and Pressburger’s feature) the Second World War, and making a feature of the bombed city, as well as the fact that two cities are spiritual homes of Christian leaders. This observation is made not to confine the film to its epoch*, but to recognize that VE Day and The Allied liberation naturally led film-makers to dwell on the preceding five years, what had been lost, and at what cost regained, and to respond in ways that have gained credit for all three productions.
Yes, Roberto Rossellini's Roma, cittàaperta(Rome, open city) (1945) is a form of propaganda, but it's gloriously executed, compelling !
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) March 11, 2014
At the start, the title Roma città aperta is rendered in black capitals for ‘Roma’, on which the other two words are overlaid in white lower case, with a panorama behind : quite striking, in the ways that this film – not just visually – is throughout. Compare this with August : Osage County, where the focus on faces seems to be all over the place, and here the effects are subtle, gently putting Francini (Marcello Pagliero) into softer focus as if to give him a mystique, even sanctitude, as a member of the resistance : one almost feels that director of photography Ubaldo Urata would be taking Adriano Goldman, that of Streep’s film, aside, and telling him a few things, explaining how a film should look.
That aside, no wonder that Martin Scorsese recently listed Roma, città aperta as one of his 85 top films, for it is crisp, clear, and certain as to what it achieves, even if, as an audience, we have to work quite hard, at times, to keep up. In honesty, though the restoration looks grand, the lack, particularly towards the beginning, of subtitles for the German speech makes for difficulty.
(For, although one can infer, for example, from the direction in which the SS goons are sent what their orders have been when they are sent to search a building, the information in the other dialogue at that time is only available to those with a grasp of and ear for the language, which does not help. On another level, for anyone with any Italian, the general lack of synchronization between lips and speech is tiresome, because the film looks as if it has been dubbed, and one also does not have the immediate cue of a mouth moving to be sure who is speaking when it could be one of three men in a dark scene.)
#posteroftheweek⁰ An illustrated Anna Magnanigraces this vintage poster for Rome, Open City pic.twitter.com/8fI8InjXyC
— BFI (@BFI) March 10, 2014
We see the occupying German forces determining to divide Rome up into sectors for the purposes of carrying out searches more efficiently, we hear them grandly declare their ‘rights’ as occupiers, and we see them home in on Manfredi. Is this the meaning of città aperta (‘open city’), rather than some positive meaning (although, of course, we hear mention of Cassino, and we know the course of history) ?
Or does the significance lie in the sacrifices that we see made, by those captured, not to betray their comrades in the resistance to the arch Nazi, Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), who seems rabidly adherent to the idea of a master race**, and thereby to fight for the freedom of the city ? For we see a convoy, which is transporting prisoners, attacked and they are freed, and the film places at its centre the values of trust and protecting others, when, doubtless unfairly, Italian combatants have been given a reputation for cowardice, and the resistance in other countries has been given a much higher profile.
Aldo Fabrizi, as Don Pietro, is unassumingly at the centre of the film, but we have no appreciation of his eventual role when Pina (short for Giuseppina, played by Anna Magnani) sends her son Piccolo Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) to fetch him early on. As the Germans were not the ultimate victors in Europe, the film can, of course, make the locals knowing and skilled in their subversion of the activities of the occupiers. It appears (from what
Wikipedia says) that the reason for the film was, in part, that a wealthy, elderly lady initially wanted to finance documentaries, first about Fabrizi’s character, and then about Roman children who had engaged in combat against the Germans : Rossellini had already wanted Fabrizi to be the priest, and Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei suggested a feature film to cover the two subjects.
Wikipedia item, however, goes on to quote Rossellini as saying that it is A film about fear, the fear felt by all of us but by me in particular. I too had to go into hiding. I too was on the run. I had friends who were captured and killed. As portrayed, though the struggle is of a deadly nature and we see death, the zeal of Major Bergmann is amusingly undermined by one of his junior officers, Captain Hartmann (Joop von Hulzen), who is (by his own admission) the worse for drink, and who reports experiences with patriots in France that cast doubt on Bergmann’s faith in his powers of extracting information by interrogation and torture.
A sybaritic and, despite her apparent sympathy, even more ruthless figure is that of Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), who would not be out of place as a Bond henchman (or even villain), in whom and whose environs Amidei (with the collaboration of Rossellini and Fellini) evokes the feeling of The Weimar Republic that we get from Christopher Isherwood via Cabaret (1972). Against such as Bermann and she, Pina and Don Pietro shine, which, despite our knowing that it is an artificial distinction, does not lessen the power of the story.
With a vibrant score by Renzo Rossellini, and its evocative camerawork, the tension that there is in this film is palpable. With the moral argument that the invaders invoke being against history, the resultant way in which courage and resignation can be shown on the part of those fighting back is the stronger : for some reason, between 1951 and 1960, the film was banned in the former West Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland).
* Another example is La Bataille du Rail (1946).
** Some critics, though, seem not to have been kind on Feist’s performance, and set it aside from that of the others.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)