"All roads lead to Rome, Open City," said the great French director Jean-Luc Godard. Along with Vittoria De Sica's masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, Rome, Open City is considered the quintessential example of the Italian neo realism movement. The great Italian director Roberto Rossellini created not only a film of such powerful documentary like realism but also a film that can be viewed at as a groundbreaking work of historical importance for its time. Neorealism, as a term, can mean several things; it often refers to films of working class life and of the struggles and social conditions of people set in the culture of poverty. Italian Neorealism was a revolutionary breakthrough, not just for its technical style and raw film-making, but for the gritty realism of its story and poignant naturalism of its characters. The aesthetics of Neorealism included films that were mostly shot on a very low-budget and on real locations not using any stages or props. It was also a style which casted non professional actors because it brought a sense of reality to the characters, where the acting seemed more natural and real. After decades of Hollywood gloss, real people instead of actors were startling to audiences. Rome, Open City was written by the legendary director Federico Fellini before he made his great mark in Italian film history, as its story is based on several true events in which a resistance leader is being hunted down by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Rome during World War II. With help from allies and a loyal priest who is secretly helping the resistance, he plans to flee Rome and to get to safety under a new identity.
"Sour high, red eagle!" is the chant of the march as German soldiers march through occupied Rome. A woman sheltering the resistance fighter Giorgio Manfredi witnesses the Gestapo arriving to her home. When Manfredi sees this he quickly eludes the Gestapo by jumping across the rooftops and making his escape. The woman who was hiding him there eventually lets the German soldiers in her home when they knock on her door.
They search the apartment and do not find Manfredi. Suddenly the phone rings and one of the German soldiers answers it. Marina a lover of Manfredi's asks for him but when realizing a German officer is on the other end, quickly hangs up. The Gestapo commander Major Bergmann is seeing the Police Commissioner in his office and Major Bergmann lets the Commissioner know of his plan to catch the engineer Giorgio Manfredi because he is also a dangerous military leader of the National Liberation Committee.
Suddenly the two of them hear screams from the other room as a Nazi soldier comes in to let Major Bergmann know that they are torturing a professor in the interrogation room. Major Bergmann tells him to keep it quiet saying, "How these animals scream!" When looking at some photographs of Manfredi the Commissioner sees a picture of Marina a cabaret performer who Major Bergmann knows is Manfredi's lover and is keeping tabs on her with the help of his secretary Ingrid.
Riots are occurring in town as several people storm a bakery because of lack of food and starvation because of the German's present occupation in their town. The priest Agostino and the understanding neighborhood Police Sergeant try to calm the Italian residents down. A pregnant woman named Pina (Anna Magnani) and friend of the Police Sergeant's is one of the several people involved in the riot and when the Police Sergeant asked why she is doing this in her condition she says, "Should I just starve to death?" The Police sergeant offers to walk Pina home and she politely gives him a loaf of bread and even though he knows he shouldn't accept he is starving as well.
Pina arrives home to her apartment and when heading to her door she runs into Manfredi who is looking for her fiance Francesco the printer; but she tells him he's out. Pina at first thinks Manfredi might be part of the Nazi police but when she realizes he a close friend of Francesco and is part of the resistance she lets him into the apartment. Manfredi asks Pina, "do you know Don Pietro, the parish priest? I'd like to speak to him." Don Pietro is a priest in Rome that secretly helps the resistance by transmitting messages and money.
Don Pietro is also scheduled to officiate Pina's wedding to her husband Francesco in which they are to be married the following day. Francesco is not very religious, but he would rather be married by a patriot priest than a fascist official. Pina orders her young son Marcello to go find Don Pietro and bring him back for her. Pina's younger sister Laura comes in and her and Manfredi know one another because Laura works at the cabaret with Marina. Pina's son Marcello runs to the children's schoolyard to get Don Pietro telling him his mother needs to see him quickly.
Don Pietro arrives at Pina's apartment and when seeing his friend Manfredi safe from the Gestapo he asks Pina if he and Manfredi can talk in private. Manfredi tells Don Pietro that there are 600 rebels in the hills above Tagliacozzo and that one of them will be waiting at 6 on the Tiburtine bridge to receive cash for the military committee. Because Manfredi is being searched for all over Rome Don Pietro decides to go in his place and when Manfredi asks if he is asking too much Don Pietro says, "no, too little, even, for those sacrificing their lives."
Don Pietro goes to see Pina's husband Francesco informing him that the SS were at Manfredi's the other night and he is now hiding out at his home. Don Pietro is given books from Manfredi's partner Gino and when he tells Gino that he was told he would be receiving money, Gino tells him, "there's not much to read in those books," as the money is stashes within the pages. Marina is at work in the back dressing room of the cabaret club and Laura comes into the room to tell her that her lover Manfredi is hiding out at her sister's place. Major Bergmann's spy Ingrid posing as another cabaret dancer walks into the dressing room and is waiting for Marina to accidentally slip out any information on the whereabouts of Manfredi.
The next day Pina goes to the church to see Don Pietro for her confession waiting for his arrival talking to Father Agostino. When Don Pietro returns with the books from Francesco's rebellion he tells Pina if they could do confession another time because he is busy at the moment. Before the two walk out together a German soldier walks in at first frightening Don Pietro when the soldier asks for him; but when alone he realizes he is a man who wants to find a way out from the SS and Don Pietro offers to help the officer. Afterwards when Don Pietro walks Pina home she talks about her upcoming marriage to Francesco and how she feels he could marry someone better instead of a penniless widow with a child.
She tells Don Pietro about how life keeps getting harder for the both of them and asks the priest, "doesn't Christ see us?" Don Pietro says, "So many people ask me that: 'Doesn't Christ see us?' But are we sure we haven't deserved this scourge? Are we sure we've always lived according to the Lord's laws? People never think of changing their ways, but when the piper must be paid they despair and ask, 'Doesn't the Lord see us? Doesn't he take pity on us?' Yes, he does but we have so much to be forgiven for, and for that we must pray and forgive many things."
Later that evening Pietro heads to the Tiburtine bridge to give the cash to one of the men from the resistance and will recognize him from the sound of a particular whistle which is a signal for the rebellion. Francesco arrives home after work and lets Manfredi know that he has to drop all contact with central for a while even after hard months of work. When Pina arrives comes home she tells Francesco that she can't find her son Marcello and she's worried because it's after curfew. What she doesn't know is that Marcello, his friend Romoletto and several other boys have a small role in the resistance planting bombs in which one just blown up a tank car. When Marcello finally returns home his mother has a fit and orders him to go to bed.
Later that evening after Francesco tucks Marcello in bed he finds Pina crying because her sister Laura and her got into a fight and she left saying she won't be attending their wedding. Francesco tells Pina that her sister probably doesn't mean it. With the two of them alone together Pina looks at Francesco and tells him that it's been two years since they both met and how things have changed during the war. Francesco tells her, "everyone thought it would be over quickly and that we'd only see it on newsreels."
Pina says, "when is it going to end? Sometimes I just can't go on. This winter feels like it will never end." Francesco reassures her that it will end eventually and spring will come again more beautiful than ever because they will be free. Francesco says, "we mustn't be afraid now or in the future because we're on the just path. We're fighting for something that has to be, that can't help coming. The road may be long and hard, but we'll get there, and we'll see a better world. And our children especially will see it...Marcello and the one on the way."
Back at Major Bergmann's office the Police Commissioner comes in to inform Major Bergmann that Manfredi was just spotted around Prenestino which was near the same area where a tank car of gasoline blown up in a rail yard. The Police Commissioner also tells Major Bergmann that Manfredi's real name is Luigi Ferraris and that Giorgio Manfreidi is only an alias. Major Bergmann tells Ingrid the updated news and she promises she will try to retrieve as much information as she can from Manfredi's lover Marina.
The next morning Pina runs into the bedroom to let Francesco and Manfredi know that the Gestapo have surrounded the building and are doing a detailed search of each apartment. The Gestapo pull all the tenants out of their apartments but Francesco and Manfredi make their escape through the back-end of the building. Several of the boys from the neighborhood run to Dan Pietro's church to alert Marcello that the Gestapo have surrounded his mother's building. Don Pietro orders Marcello to stay at the church but when Marcello tells him that his friend Romoletto has bombs the two of them rush back towards the apartment to stop the boy from starting a war.
After Pina and all the other neighbors are pulled out of their apartments Don Pietro arrives with Marcello and with the help of the Police Sergeant Dan Pietro talks his way into going in the building by making up a story about giving a sick elderly man his final prayers; when truthfully the elderly man up there is paralyzed and wasn't able to make his way down. When inside the apartment building Marcello leads Don Pietro to Romoletto's apartment and they grab the weapons and bombs that were stored there and quickly hide them. One of the SS officers believes something is suspicious in the story of the elderly man being sick so he decides to up there and see if what they said was true.
When the officer arrives to the elderly man's room Don Pietro just in time hid the bombs and weapons under the elderly man's bed and quickly knocked the elderly man out to make it look like the man was on his death bed. Back outside the Gestapo unfortunately caught Francesco and throw him in the back of one of the Gestapo vans. When Pina sees her fiance being abducted and taking away she starts to run after him but is shot down and killed in the street by the Gestapo.
While the Gestapo are transporting Francesco to the Gestapo headquarters they get attacked from Manfredi and the rebellion as they come to rescue Francesco. Francesco and Manfredi meet up with Marina and she invites the both of them to stay at her place. That evening at Marina's Laura arrives drunk and is surprised to see Francesco and Manfredi there not knowing that her sister is dead.
That evening Manfredi and Marina argue on their relationship but Manfredi doesn't truly love Marina because she is very materialistic. Manfredi says, "Poor Marina. You think happiness means a fancy apartment, nice clothes, a maid, and rich lovers." Manfredi goes to comfort Francesco because of the death of Pima. Manfredi tells Francesco that the both of them will meet up with Don Pietro tomorrow and he will help him hide out in a monastery so in time he can eventually get out of Rome safely. Francesco tells him that now that Pima is dead he will never hide and will rejoin the rebellion and work harder than ever. Marina eavesdrop on their plans and that evening out of anger calls Ingrid to turn Manfredi in because he no longer loves her.
The next day Manfredi arrives to the church to see Don Pietro to take him to the monastery. Manfredi will also be going along with an Austrian who is a German defector. Don Pietro has made Manfredi a new forged ID card with a new name titled Giovanni Episcopo. Marcello will now be in the care of Don Pietro as Francesco is in the courtyard saying his good buys to Marcello but promising him he will one day return. Marcello calls Francesco papa before he leaves giving him a scarf from his mother. Before catching up to Don Pietro, Manfredi and the Austrian the Gestapo pull over and arrest them but Francesco luckily gets away unnoticed.
Major Bergmann gets a call informing him that Ingrid's information from Marina was correct hearing his men caught Manfredi and are bringing the prisoners to his station. Because of Marina betraying her lover and the rebellion Ingrid seduces her with drugs and fur coats to thank her for her help. When the prisoners arrive and are locked up together Major Bergmann tells his men, "These men must talk before the curfew is up. The rebels must not learn of their arrest. We have ten hours." Manfredi is about to thank Don Pietro for all that he has done for him and is about to reveal to him his real name when the SS come into their cell and pull Manfredi out to be interrogated.
The Major interrogates Manfredi and tells him that he knows all about him, his political history and past informers; and that he is a leader of the national Liberation Committee being in contact with Badoglio's men. He forces him to talk about the detail of the organization but Manfredi won't talk so he is pulled into an interrogation room to be tortured while Major Bergmann calls Don Pietro into his office. Major Bergmann tells the priest that his men searched his room and found refuge and forged documents for Italians that are plotting to attack the Nazi's and shelters for German deserters. Don Pietro says, "I know nothing. What little I know I learned in the confessional, and those secrets must die with me. It's our vow."
Major Bergmann finally reveals to Don Pietro who Manfredi really is saying, "he's a subversive, an atheist...your enemy!" Don Pietro says, "I am a Catholic priest. I believe that anyone fighting for justice and liberty walks int he ways of the Lord, and the ways of the Lord are infinite." Don Pietro hears the screams of Manfredi in the other room as they torture him but Don Pietro tells Major Bergmann that Manfredi will never talk. Hours pass and Major Bergmann walks into the main hall and talks to Nazi captain Harmann.
"I have a fellow who must talk before morning, and an Italian priest who claims the fellow won't because he's praying for him."
"And if he doesn't talk?"
"If he won't talk no matter what?"
"That would mean an Italian is as good as a German...that there's no difference between the blood of a slave race and that of a master race. What would be the sense of our struggle."
"Twenty-five years ago I led execution squads in France. I was a young officer then...and I too believed that we Germans were a master race. But the French patriots chose to die rather than talk. We Germans refuse to realize that people want to be free."
"Harmann, you're drunk!"
"Yes, I am. I drink every night to forget. But instead I see more and more clearly. All we're really good at is killing, killing, killing! We've strewn all of Europe with corpses, and from the graves rises up an unquenchable hatred. Hatred...hatred everywhere! That hatred will devour us. There's no hope. We'll all die without the slightest hope."
"I forbid you to continue!"
"You hear me? You forget that you are a German officer!"
Major Bergmann is told that even after being numb from the beatings and torture his men unleashed on Manfredi, he still refuses to talk. Major Bergmann begs Manfredi saying, "Mr. Ferraris, as I said before I admire you greatly, and I do appreciate this proof of your courage and spirit of sacrifice. But you must understand: This can't go on. Give me the names of Badoglio's generals." Manfredi slowly looks up at Major Bergmann and spits blood in his face so Major Bergmann angrily orders his men to continue torturing him.
Don Pietro looks in the room and witnesses Manfredi's grewsome torture as Major Bergmann's men burn Manfredi with a torch and rip his fingernails out. Eventually Manfredi dies and Don Pietro says, "it is finished. You tried to destroy his soul, but you only destroyed his body! Curse you all!" When Marina sees Manfredi dead she screams and faints from shock. The SS are then ordered to lock her up but not before Ingrid cruelly takes back the fur coat she offered to Marina to sell out the man she loved. Major Bergmann then tells the SS officers to put down in the report that Manfredi unfortunately died from a heart attack and to use the alias Giovanni Episcopo saying, "Or else we create another martyr, and they already have plenty."
When Don Pietro still refuses to talk as well the SS decide to take him out in the courtyard to be publicly executed. A priest speaks to Don Pietro before his execution and Pietro says, "It's not hard to die a good death. What's hard is to live a good life." Right before the execution Marcello, Romoletto and several other boys from the town sadly watch Don Pietro's execution from a fence as Don Pietro is shot in the back of the head.
Italian Neorealism came about as World War II ended and Benito Mussolini's government fell, causing the Italian film industry to lose its center. Neorealism was a sign of cultural change and social progress in Italy. Its films presented contemporary stories and ideas, and were often shot in the streets because the film studios had been damaged significantly during the war.
The neorealist style was developed by a circle of film critics that revolved around the magazine Cinema, including Luchino Visconti, Gianni Puccini, Cesare Zavattini, Giuseppe De Santis and Pietro Ingrao. Largely prevented from writing about politics (the editor-in-chief of the magazine was Vittorio Mussolini, son of Benito Mussolini), the critics attacked the white telephone films that dominated the industry at the time. As a counter to the popular mainstream films, including the so-called "White Telephone" films, some critics felt that Italian cinema should turn to the realist writers from the turn of 20th century.
Both Antonioni and Visconti had worked closely with Jean Renoir. In addition, many of the filmmakers involved in neorealism developed their skills working on calligraphist films (though the short-lived movement was markedly different from neorealism). In the Spring of 1945, Mussolini was executed and Italy was liberated from German occupation. This period, known as the "Italian Spring," was a break from old ways and an entrance to a more realistic approach when making films. Italian cinema went from utilizing elaborate studio sets to shooting on location in the countryside and city streets in the realist style.
The first neorealist film is generally thought to be Ossessione by Luchino Visconti in 1943. Neorealism became famous globally in 1946 with Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City, when it won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival as the first major film produced in Italy after the war.
Most neorealism films are generally filmed with nonprofessional actors--although, in a number of cases, well known actors were cast in leading roles, playing strongly against their normal character types in front of a background populated by local people rather than extras brought in for the film.
They are shot almost exclusively on location, mostly in run-down cities as well as rural areas due to its forming during the post-war era, no longer being constrained to studio sets. The topic involves the idea of what it is like to live among the poor and the lower working class. The focus is on a simple social order of survival in rural, everyday life. Performances are mostly constructed from scenes of people performing fairly mundane and quotidian activities, devoid of the self-consciousness that amateur acting usually entails. Neorealist films often feature children in major roles, though their characters are frequently more observational than participatory.
Open City established several of the principles of neorealism, depicting clearly the struggle of normal Italian people to live from day to day under the extraordinary difficulties of the German occupation of Rome, consciously doing what they can to resist the occupation. The children play a key role in this, and their presence at the end of the film is indicative of their role in neorealism as a whole: as observers of the difficulties of today who hold the key to the future.
Many of the films involved Post-synch sound/dubbing employing conversational speech, and local dialects. They also included funtional rather than ostentatious editing that would draw attention to itself, as shots were organized loosely. Many neorealism films involved stories that were episodic, elliptical, or organic in structure. Plot were preferable not a tight framework of cause and effect, but a more fluid relationship between scenes which approximated how events would occur in real life.
Many of the films had a sense of a documentary impulse & immediacy in filming, shifting away from the pretense of studio stories. It wanted to be a cinema that attended to the details and trials of everyday life, of the material experience of average people in difficult situations. It also had a concern with the lives of working-class people and a social commitment and humanist point of view to contemporary stories that spoke to the historical present. Vittorio De Sica's 1948 film Bicycle Thieves is also representative of the genre, with non-professional actors, and a story of a 'everyday man' and his hardships of working-class life after the war.
Italian Neorealism rapidly declined in the early 1950s. Liberal and socialist parties were having a hard time presenting their message. Levels of income were gradually starting to rise and the first positive effects of the Ricostruzione period began to show. As a consequence, most Italians favored the optimism shown in many American movies of the time. The vision of the existing poverty and despair, presented by the neorealist films, was demoralizing a nation anxious for prosperity and change. The views of the postwar Italian government of the time were also far from positive, and the remark of Giulio Andreotti, who was then a vice-minister in the De Gasperi cabinet, characterized the official view of the movement: Neorealism is "dirty laundry that shouldn't be washed and hung to dry in the open."
Italy's move from individual concern with neorealism to the tragic frailty of the human condition can be seen through Federico Fellini's films. His early works Il bidone and La Strada are transitional movies. The larger social concerns of humanity, treated by neorealists, gave way to the exploration of individuals. Their needs, their alienation from society and their tragic failure to communicate became the main focal point in the Italian films to follow in the 1960s. Similarly, Antonioni's Red Desert and Blow-up take the neo-realist trappings and internalize them in the suffering and search for knowledge brought out by Italy's post-war economic and political climate.
Neorealism screenwriter Cesare Zavattini said, "film should address not 'historical man' but the 'man without a label.' I dare to think that other peoples, even after the war, have what they continued to consider man as a historical subject, as historical material with determined almost inevitable actions...For them everything continued, for us, everything began. For them the war had been just another war, for us, it had been the last war...The reality of buried under the myths slowly reflowered. the cinema began its creation of the world. Here was a tree, here, an old man, here, a house, here a man eating, sleeping, a man crying...The cinema should accept unconditionally, what is contemporary. Today, today, today."
French film critic Andre Bazin on neorealism: "No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality, there is no more cinema."
In the period from 1944–1950, many neorealist filmmakers drifted away from pure neorealism and into a period of "rosy neorealism" of Italian films of the 1950's. Some directors explored allegorical fantasy, such as de Sica's Miracle in Milan, and historical spectacle, like Senso by Visconti. This was also the time period when a more upbeat neorealism emerged, which produced films that melded working-class characters with 1930s-style populist comedy, as seen in de Sica's Umberto D.
There are different debates on when the Neorealist period began and ended. Some claimed it ended in 1948, with the shift in power from the left to the centrist Christian Democrat Party and with the inclusion of Italy in the Marshall Plan, which began to subsidize the film industry once more. Many claimed that the cycle ended with De Sica's Umberto D in 1952.
Robert Kolker suggests a useful way of thinking about "two Neorealisms. 1) on the one hand a group of films made between 1945 & 1955, and 2) on the other Neorealism as an idea, an aesthetic, a politics...both a form of praxis and an ideal to aspire to."
Irrelevant Actions were an aesthetic that neorealism provided. Andre Bazin essay on Umberto D saying, "the most beautiful sequence in the film, the awaking of the little maid, rigorously avoids and dramatic italicizing. The young girl gets up, comes and goes in the kitchen, hunts down ants, grinds the coffee...and all these 'irrelevant' actions are reported to us with meticulous temporal continuity."
More contemporary theorists of Italian Neorealism characterize it less as a consistent set of stylistic characteristics and more as the relationship between film practice and the social reality of post-war Italy. Millicent Marcus delineates the lack of consistent film styles of Neorealist film. Peter Brunette and Marcia Landy both deconstruct the use of reworked cinematic forms in Rossellini's Open City. Using psychoanalysis, Vincent Rocchi characterizes neorealist film as consistently engendering the structure of anxiety into the structure of the plot itself.
"All roads lead to Rome Open City,” Jean-Luc Godard once said, playing on the old Italian proverb—and meaning, we can assume, that when thinking about modern cinema, one always has to come to terms with Roberto Rossellini’s seminal film. Indeed, Rome Open City is not just a milestone in the history of Italian cinema but possibly, with De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, one of the most influential and symbolic films of its age, a movie about “reality” that has left a trace on every film movement since. It is also the story of a fascinating and atypical adventure in filmmaking, a masterpiece malgré soi, a unique piece of cinema that was the result, in a way, of serendipity.
It all happened in Rome, soon after the liberation of the city by the Americans in 1944, and following the gentle decree by Admiral Ellery W. Stone, heading a commission created to decide the future of the Italian film industry, that since “the so-called Italian cinema was invented by the fascists,” it had to be suppressed. Full stop. Cinecittà, the seat of the best Italian production before the war, was turned into a centro di sfollamento, a homeless camp. The Italian cinema became a desert. It had to begin anew somewhere else. And it did.
Numerous stories about the genesis of Rome Open City have circulated over the years. The screenwriter Ugo Pirro even wrote a novel about the film’s creation. And several documentaries—including one by another master of Italian cinema, Carlo Lizzani—have been made on the subject. In each, the story is different. So let’s try to stick to the few things we know for sure. There is a remarkable director, Roberto Rossellini, who had been making movies for years under the fascist regime but who nevertheless, because of his talent and his attitude, embodied the spirit of the intelligentsia of liberated Italy. There are his friends, the screenwriter Sergio Amidei (“It’s a film we made all together, like when you cook easily,” Amidei said about Rome Open City) and a young, ambitious artist and screenwriter, Federico Fellini, who both took part in the script. There is the real story of Teresa Gullace, a woman killed by the Germans in front of the barracks on viale Giulio Cesare, who inspired the famous scene of the death of Pina, shot down while running after the truck that is abducting her fiancé. There is, in the beginning, the idea of making a documentary on Don Morosini, a priest who was a hero of the resistance. There is a provisional title, Città aperta . . . and no money. Above all, there is a woman, an actress, Anna Magnani—a queen of the cabaret, a star onstage, not a traditional beauty but whose face has an electrifying intensity, and who would become a screen legend, in films all built around her charisma and vernacular charm.
The preparation and development of the project took all summer and autumn of 1944. But according to Amidei, the original script was written in a week in Fellini’s kitchen. Once again, there are different stories. Pirro argued that when Fellini became involved in the writing, the major part of the work had already been done by Amidei, and Fellini provided only dialogue and some gags for Aldo Fabrizi. Rossellini, at one point, even said that he had written the script “with some friends during the German occupation.” In the beginning, the film was to be simply a documentary on Don Morosini. Then, discussion after discussion, new elements were added, like the story of Gullace. But when? There is no written script left, only personal memories. We have to rely on the final movie.
Shooting started on January 18, 1945. The war in the rest of Italy was still on. There was no film stock, and so Rossellini and his team had to use abandoned scraps found here and there. It wasn’t possible to check the rushes. Rossellini, little by little, sold all he owned so that the film could go on. In Italian, as in English, there is the expression “to make a virtue of necessity,” and that’s what Rossellini did here. The result was a new kind of movie, never before seen. Does that explain the whistles—which in Italy express disapproval—on the opening night of September 24, 1945, in front of a group of “friends” and critics? Audiences over the next weeks, however, reacted with enthusiasm, and the movie, which in the meantime was given its final title, became the first hit of the year. If some in the establishment were very severe in their criticism—finding a lack of unity between the first and second halves, for instance—others, including Alberto Moravia, Carlo Lizzani, and Umberto Barbaro, found value in a film born in the spirit of the resistance and from its many voices.
Most of all, it was the people of Italy who were won over, finding in the film the flavor of truth. In Rome Open City, which spoke of men and women in difficult times, tormented, injured, scorned, humiliated, they recognized their own experiences during the years of a tragic, suicidal war. In Magnani, with her feverish face of a woman of the people, with her rough voice, with her natural behavior so far from the phony sophistication of the divas of the fascist cinema, with her passion, they found the truth of an Italy too often forgotten. In the actors taken from the street who surrounded her—not Fabrizi, a famous comic performer turned here into a tragic figure, or the professional Maria Michi, a woman very near the resistance and the Communist Party, but in the real, tormented faces of many of the others—they saw themselves.
It was the beginning of “neorealism”—an opening onto reality, onto the human predicament, which Rossellini would continue with Paisan and Germany Year Zero. And it was the beginning of a new career for Magnani, promoted with this film to the status of icon in the new Italy: a real face, a real woman, a new kind of actress, who would go on to work with Visconti, Renoir, Cukor, Monicelli, Lumet, Pasolini, Fellini. Always in the name of reality. Always with a passion for the truth.
With the release of Rome, Open City Roberto Rossellini was considered the pioneer of the Italian neo realism movement which became as big internationally as film noir was in the United States. Rome, Open City was filmed at the end of World War II in 1944 where there was virtually no film industry in Italy and no money to fund films. Rossellini had met and befriended a wealthy elderly lady in Rome who wanted to finance a documentary on Don Pieto Morosini, a Catholic priest who had been shot by the Germans for helping the partisan movement in Italy. Rossellini wanted actor Aldo Fabrizi to play the priest in reenactments and contacted his friend Federico Fellini to help get in touch with Fabrizi.
By then the lady had agreed to finance an additional documentary about Roman children who had fought against the German occupiers. Fellini and screenwriter Sergio Amidei suggested to Rossellini that, instead of two short documentaries, he should make one feature film that combined the two ideas, and in August 1944, just two months after the Allies had forced the Nazis to evacuate Rome, Rossellini, Fellini, and Amidei began working on the script for the film. According to Amidei the original script was written within a week inside Fellini's kitchen.
Shooting for the film began in January 1945 but the funding from the elderly Roman lady was never enough and the film was crudely shot due to circumstances, and not for stylistic reasons. The facilities at Cinecittà Studios were also unusable at that time due to unreliable electricity supply and poor quality film stock. Because there was no film stock Rossellini had to use abandoned scrapes here and there and Rossellini sold everything he owned so he could move on with the filming.
In order to authentically portray the hardships and poverty of Roman people under the occupation, Rossellini hired mostly non-professional actors for the film, with some exceptions of established stars including Fabrizi and famous actress Anna Magnani who went on to such stardom and later win the 1956 Academy Award for The Rose Tattoo. When hiring non-actors for the roles Rossellini had no idea that the casting of non-professional actors would eventually be the norm of the Italian neo realism movement when it started to become defined with Vittoria De Sica's Shoeshine and Umberto D.
Neorealism, as a term, can mean several things; but it often refers to films of working class life and of the struggles and social conditions of people set in the culture of poverty. On the making of the film, Rossellini stated that the "situation of the moment guided by my own and the actors moods and perspectives" dictated what they shot, and he relied more on improvisation than on a script. Rossellini had also said, "to me realism is the simply the artistic form of truth." He relied on traditional devices of melodrama, such as identification of the film's central characters and a clear distinction between good and evil characters. He also constructed four interior sets for the most important locations of the film and it was first believed that the actual film stock was put together out of many different disparate bits, giving the film its iconic documentary or newsreel style.
Rome, Open City received a mediocre reception from Italian audiences when it was first released, when Italian people were said to want escapism after the war. However, it did become more popular as the films reputation grew in other countries and the film brought international attention to Italian cinema. Because of the film's success Rossellini was able to make what is called his Neorealist Trilogy. Including Rome, Open City, his other two films in the trilogy were Paisan which tells six different stories that follow the Allied invasion from July 1943 to winter 1944 and Germany Year Zero which tells the story of a young boy who tries to survive after a destructed Germany after World War II. He then made The Flowers of Saint Francis which dramatizes the life of St. Francis and his early followers.
Rossellini eventually became one of the most important Italian directors of all time next to other great Italian directors like, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittoria De sica and Pier Paolo Pasolini. During the 50's Rossellini had an affair with the great Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and she became pregnant with his son. This affair caused a huge scandal in the United States, where it led to Bergman returning to Italy, divorcing her husband, leaving her daughter and marrying Rossellini. During her years in Italy Bergman starred in a few of her husband's neorealism films most famously Stromboli and most importantly Journey to Italy which is now considered one of his most important works.
Robert Burgoyne Rome, Open City, "the perfect exemplar of this mode of cinematic creation whose established critical definition was given by André Bazin." Rossellini himself traced what was called neorealism back to one of his earlier films La nave bianca, which he claimed had the same style. Critics debate whether the pending marriage of the Catholic Pina and the communist Francesco really "acknowledges the working partnership of communists and Catholics in the actual historical resistance." Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, gave the film a highly positive review, and wrote, "Yet the total effect of the picture is a sense of real experience, achieved as much by the performance as by the writing and direction. The outstanding performance is that of Aldo Fabrizi as the priest, who embraces with dignity and humanity a most demanding part. Marcello Pagliero is excellent too, as the resistance leader, and Anna Magnani brings humility and sincerity to the role of the woman who is killed. The remaining cast is unqualifiedly fine, with the exception of Harry Feist in the role of the German commander. His elegant arrogance is a bit too vicious—but that may be easily understood." Rome, Open City is now considered one of the most powerful films in the world and film critic William Wolf especially praised the scene where Pina is shot, stating that "few scenes in cinema have the force of that in which Magnani, arms outstretched, races towards the camera to her death." Even though Anna Magnani was already a famous Italian star on stage and in film her performance in Rome, Open City gave her an added range of charisma and drama. Rome, Open City's revolutionary realism excited Italian director Gillo Pontercorvo calling Rossellini, "the most important talent in the history of the cinema." The villains in the story, most importantly Major Bergmann as a vicious and cruel monster and his ruthless and seducing assistant Ingrid who has slight lesbian undertones make for very loathing characters. The character of Pina whose flaws of being an unmarried pregnant single mother make for an interesting contrast with the materialistic Marina who sells out the man she loves for wealth and cocaine. It was also very shocking for audiences at the time that a story would kill off a major character, especially at the half-point of the film. That technique only really became famous when Alfred Hitchcock did it to Janet Leigh a decade later in Psycho. Manfredi and Francesco are the heroes of the story as they are portrayed as the strong and holy freedom fighters with Don Pietra as the final martyr and the saint for his people and his God. Rossellini stated about Rome, Open City, "We were emerging from the tragedy of the war. We had all taken part in it for we were all its victims. I sought only to picture the essence of things. I had absolutely no interest in telling a romanticized tale along the lines of film drama. The actual facts were more dramatic than any screen clique."