Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Rome, Open City

(Roma, città aperta, Italy, 1945)

I did a little research on the term “Open City,” and it confirmed what I thought. In wartime, if a government sees that it is unable to defend a city, they will declare it open, which means that the enemy is free to march in, the city will not be defended. This strikes me as a remarkably humane provision of the Geneva Conventions. It was invoked several times in WWII, and even the fucking Nazis honored it. The French government declared Paris open when they fled, which led to those newsreels we’ve all seen of storm troopers marching peacefully under the Arc de Triomphe. Humiliating for the French people, but a lot better than having Paris bombed by Stukas.

Later, in August 1943 when Mussolini packed it in, the Italian army declared Rome an open city, and it was soon occupied by German troops. In June 1944 the Germans retreated, and declared Rome and Florence open cities. The Allies marched in unopposed, welcomed (more or less; we had been bombing them for quite a while) by the Italian people.

This is the first of what was to become known as Roberto Rossellini’s “War Trilogy,” though I doubt he was thinking of it like that at the time. We recently saw the last one, Germany, Year Zero, which was set in the ruins of Berlin. We haven’t seen the second, Paisan, which follows the Allied invasion of Italy from ’43 to ’44, years of hard and bloody fighting. This one deals with the ten months when the fucking Nazis occupied Rome, and were resisted by Italian nationalists.

Federico Fellini co-wrote the script, which combined two ideas Rossellini wanted to make, of young boys engaging in sabotage of the invaders, and of a real priest, Don Pieto Morosini, who was shot for aiding the insurgents. This was not all that long after the Germans had left. Parts of the city were in ruins from Allied bombing, and things were tough all over. There was not much money for making movies, but he scraped together enough to do this on a tiny budget. As he was to do later, he hired a lot of non-actors.

Most of the action takes place in a big apartment building where a lot of people are crammed together. A pregnant Anna Magnani is to be married to Marcello Pagliero, who is a key man in the resistance. There is a lot of tension, a lot of spy-type stuff with the SS commander determined to shut down the insurgency. Most of the people we see are engaged in a big conspiracy, never helping the Germans in any way, but there are always traitors …

SPOILER WARNING. The story is very sad. It was a dangerous time. There is one very moving scene, one that is hard to watch, and one that was a complete surprise, so if you want it to remain a surprise, don’t go any further.

The hard one to watch is the torture of Marcello, which is far harsher than anything I saw in Zero Dark Thirty. Marcello does not talk, but the price he pays for it is heavy. I’m sure death came as a relief.

The moving one is when the priest is strapped to a chair in an open field and twelve Italian soldiers are marched up to shoot him … in the back! I’d never heard of that. Ready, aim … and all the soldiers point their rifles into the ground, and fire. The furious German commandant goes up to the priest and shoots him in the head.

The surprising one is about halfway through. Marcello has been arrested and is being taken away in the back of a truck with many others. Anna runs after him, her arms outstretched … and she is machine-gunned. Her young son cradles her lifeless body. I can only recall two movies, offhand, where a major player like that, a star, dies so early: Psycho, and Contagion, where Kate Winslet dies of a horrible disease.

The acting is all very good, with a script that was sometimes improvised. Particularly Aldo Fabrizi as the priest. He was a very big star in Italy for most of his life, and this was his fifth film. A hard one to watch, but very worthwhile.