Open City (1946) Directed by Roberto Rossellini. Giovanna Galletti, Francesco Grandjacquet, Anna Magnani. In Italian with English subtitles.
Open City is widely regarded as the most important film in Italian cinema history. In World War II, Rome was officially designated an Open City; not a military target according to the international rules of war, yet firmly in the vise-grip of German martial law. It was filmed when Rome was still warm, so to speak, from the Nazi Occupation. The studios, as well as much of the city, had been bombed, and the country was on the verge of social and economic collapse. Money for filmaking was considered frivolous, and Open City was made with whatever film could be scrounged with an emphasis on recreating real incidents–with a largely non-professional cast–in the exact locations where they occurred. Comic and tragic moods alternate in an uncomplicated struggle between good and evil.
Open City emerged from the ashes of WWII to become Europe’s first post-war masterpiece. Filming began within two months of the Allied liberation of Rome, but it had been planned much earlier when Rossellini and his colleagues were dodging Nazi patrols and avoiding conscription. In the days when Rome was totally controlled by martial law, the penalty for harboring Allied escapees, desertion of work or even for owning a radio transmitter was death. At one point, it was forbidden to ride a bicycle because so many Nazi soldiers were being killed from them.
The script was written by Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini in one week, in Fellini’s kitchen, because no other room had heat. Rossellini was the eldest son of wealthy parents, a dedicated film-maker and cinephile. He had already made a couple of documentaries for the Fascists, and could obtain a permit for making another one using silent film stock, all that was available .The film was made spicing together unmatched 35mm bits, filmed on location partly because the studios were in ruins. All sound and dialogue had to be dubbed in later, and there were no daily rushes. Rossellini said later that while certain problems needed creative solutions, they knew exactly what they were after and knew they were getting it, whether they could see the rushes, or not.
While this is Rossellini’s best known film, and the one that brought him international fame, it is in many ways his least typical, conventional in its dramatic structure. The feeling of reality is not created by the narrative, which owes much to Hollywood film. Simply showing wartime Rome has an enormous impact, especially to American audiences unused to such scenes of devastation. Its strength is simply emphasizing the tense details of life under the Nazis.
One difficulty in watching the film for non-Italian audiences is Rossellini’s differentiation of the Nazis from the Italian Fascists. The Nazis are seen as evil and the Italian collaborators are portrayed as their lackeys. The German hatred of the Italians serves as another indication of Nazi evil, and Italian complicity never has to be addressed. Another theme is the partnership formed between the Communists and the Catholic church to combat Nazi corruption. In effect, the Resistence in Italy was the Communist Party.
A pop cultural note: In Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman, at the height of her popularity, wandered into a small art house in LA to see the film all serious filmgoers had been talking about, Open City. She wrote in her autobiography, “Deep down I was in love with Roberto from the moment I saw Open City...” She wrote him a letter offering her services as an actress. As they began locations in Italy for Stromboli*, he began to woo her, when the film was over she gave birth to his baby. Facing a barrage of worldwide criticism, she claimed her marriage to Dr. Peter Lindstrom had been over for years, and as soon as possible, she and Rossellini were married. But the American public ostracized her. She was called “Hollywood’s apostle of degradation” and “a free-love cultist” on the floor of the US Senate. After their son was born, they had twins, one of whom is the actress and model, Isabella Rossellini. Bergman and Rossellini’s marriage was annulled in 1958.
At first, Open City was rejected in Italy. Audiences were appalled at how “badly” the film was made, and by the rawness of many of its scenes. The reality of torture, of sexuality and even dirty streets had always been kept off the screen. But when the film opened in Paris and later in the U.S. to rave reviews, the film was rereleased in Italy, and its makers vindicated.
*Stromboli shows an evolving stage of Rossellini’s neo-realistic credo. The brutal tuna-fishing sequence has it all over the anamatronic fish and Hollywood actors of The Perfect Storm, and the scenes of Bergman against the steaming background of an active volcano are mesmerizing. But Bergman’s sensusous beauty and nuanced acting loom over the simple narrative and rudimentary acting skills of the rest of the cast. And the film, after all, is a gift of love to her.