Rome Open City (Roma città aperta)

Rome Open City
(Roma città aperta)
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini
Stars: Aldo Fabrizi (Don Pietro Pellegrini), Anna Magnani (Pina), Marcello Pagliero (Giorgio Manfred), Vito Annichiarico (Piccolo Marcello), Nando Bruno (Agostino), Harry Feist (Major Bergmann), Giovanna Galletti (Ingrid), Francesco Grandjacquet (Francesco), Eduardo Passarelli (Neighborhood Police Sergeant), Maria Michi (Marina Mari), Carla Rovere (Lauretta), Carlo Sindici (Police Commissioner), Joop van Hulzen (Captain Hartmann), Ákos Tolnay (Austrian Deserter)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1945
Country: Italy
Rome Open City Criterion Collection DVD
Rome Open CityIt is probably difficult for Americans, particularly Americans of this day and age, to understand what a profound effect Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City had when it premiered in Rome a mere six months after the end of World War II. Shot quickly on location in the city itself on whatever scraps of celluloid Rossellini and his crew could get their his hands on during the final months of the war (Rome had been liberated by the Allies, but half of the country was still occupied by the Nazis), the film was more than just a fictionalized account of the Italian Resistance. Rather, it was a raw reminder of the trauma the country had just endured, and with the dust still settling and memories still fresh, the immediate reaction was one of rejection. Italian audiences turned away from the film the way we turn away from any painful sight, the way that New Yorkers booed the screened and yelled “Too soon!” when trailers for Paul Greengrass’ United 93 debuted some five years after 9/11.

Yet, it wasn’t long (especially after the film took home the top prize at the first Cannes Film Festival) before audiences, both Italian and international, began to recognize what a profound achievement Rome Open City represented, especially since Italian cinema had not been an international force since the super-spectacles of the silent era. Not only was it one of the first European films to depict the underground resistance during the war, but it looked and felt unlike anything that had preceded it. The necessities of wartime film production--virtually no money and no studio resources--forced Rossellini to make do with what he had, including the use of disparate types of film stock, which resulted in a rough, newsreel-like aesthetic that gave the story’s undeniably melodramatic tensions and clear-cut depictions of good and evil a sense of gritty reality and true gravity that was further fueled by the underlying anger of a nation in ruins.

The story, which is divided into two not entirely congruous parts, takes place in Rome during the Nazi occupation (the winter of 1943 to 1944, just before the liberation). The main characters, a Catholic priest named Don Peitro (Aldo Fabrizi), a communist resistance fighter named Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), and his friend’s pregnant fiancé Pina (Anna Magnani), were loosely based on real-life personalities (in fact, the film was originally intended to be a documentary about Giuseppe Morosini, a priest martyr-hero of the resistance). The crux of the story is that Mandredi has been cornered by the Gestapo and is trying to remain hidden, an endeavor aided by Don Pietro and Pina and ultimately undermined by Mandredi’s opportunistic, drug-addicted mistress (Maria Michi). Screenwriters Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini wisely spread the sentiment among the major characters, all of whom are brilliantly played by unlikely actors (Fabrizi was a comedic player making his dramatic debut and Magnani was best known as a cabaret performer). They also recognize the emotional power of showing collaboration against a common enemy, which is why the alliance between Don Peitro and Manfredi, who represent the otherwise antithetical Catholic Church and communist party, respectively, is so effective.

Rome Open City is most frequently discussed as the film that brought the Italian neorealist movement, which arguably began with Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942), to its artistic fruition, which is why it has been credited with inspiring everything from the French New Wave (Godard was a big fan) to the cinema-verité documentary style. Neorealism sought to document the realities of life in postwar Italy by rejecting the artificiality of the studio-based production that characterized the fascist period and embracing handheld camerawork, nonprofessional actors, natural lighting, and, most importantly, location shooting. Neorealist filmmakers took to the streets quite literally, with Rossellini’s film leading the way.

Of course, such a history obscures the fact that Rome Open City engages with plenty of cinematic devices not often associated with neorealism, from the use of known stars in the lead roles to the melodramatic contrivances of the plot. What is masterful about the film, then, is not its neorealist purity, but rather the way in which it used unconventional techniques to inject new life into old forms, in the process forging a cinema that would influence the rest of the world.

Rome Open City Criterion Collection DVD
Roberto Rossellini’s War TrilogyRome Open City is available exclusively as part of the three-disc “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy” box set (SRP $79.95), which also includes Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Peter Bondanella
  • Video introduction by Roberto Rossellini from 1963
  • Once Upon a Time . . . Rome Open City 2006 documentary
  • Video interview with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà
  • “Rossellini and the City” visual essay by film scholar Mark Shiel
  • Video interview with film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateJanuary 26, 2010

    While the release of Criterion’s long-awaited box set of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy marks the collection’s 500th DVD release, more significantly it means that these important films, which previously were difficult if not impossible to find in anything other than awful condition, are now widely available to American viewers. Rome Open City and Paisan have been available in Region 1 in less-than-stellar DVD releases from Image, but Germany Year Zero has been MIA on DVD and has never been seen in the U.S. in the original version presented here with German opening titles and a German-language soundtrack. Criterion has given these three films top-notch treatment, especially in comparison to previous editions that, according to the liner notes, have used “later-generation elements exhibiting both physical wear and tear and printed-in dirt and damage” that has been mistakenly attributed to the film’s intended aesthetic. Criterion has given all three films 2K high-definition digital transfers taken from 35mm fine-grain master positives and then used extensive digital restoration with the MTI DRS system, Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system. The results are simply outstanding, with all three films looking better than they have in decades. Although they still bear the gritty look of neorealism and there are some inconsistencies and flicker, the images are sharper and more detailed than we’ve ever seen, especially now that they are not marred with print damage, dirt, and debris. The only possible complaint one could raise with these transfers is that the films are pictureboxed. All three soundtracks were mastered in 24-bit from the corresponding optical soundtracks from the 35mm prints and digitally restored, and they sound quite good, especially given their age and limited technology of the time. Rossellini preferred postsynchronization, rather than recording dialogue live, so the soundtracks (with the exception of Germany Year Zero, which was one of only three films that Rossellini recorded live) sometimes appear a bit awkward in terms of not being perfectly in step with the image.
    The excellent audio commentary by film scholar Peter Bondanella (author of The History of Italian Cinema and The Cinema of Federico Fellini) was originally recorded in 1995 for the Criterion laserdisc release. Despite being 15 years old, the commentary still has tons of crucial insight into the film, as Bondanella illuminates both the film itself and the unique context in which it was made. Further information about the film’s production can be found in Once Upon a Time . . . Rome Open City, a 45-minute documentary made in 2006 that features rare material and footage, as well as a new interview with Isabella Rossellini and archival interviews with Anna Magnani, Federico Fellini, and Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini also appears in a brief introduction to the film that was recorded for Italian television in 1963. Another excellent supplement is “Rossellini and the City,” a 25-minute visual essay in which film scholar Mark Shiel (author of Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City) discusses Rossellini’s groundbreaking use of the urban landscape in his War Trilogy. Finally, the disc includes new video interviews with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà and Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, a film critic and Rossellini friend who discusses the filmmaker’s use of religion in his films.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    James Kendrick

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