Rome, Open City: Roberto Rossellini’s great leap for realism on screen

A lightning bolt or a melodrama “full of old ingredients”? How Roberto Rossellini’s wartime drama Rome, Open City became a line-in-the-sand moment for world cinema.

15 May 2024

By Alex Barrett

Rome, Open City (1945)

“The overwhelming experience of 1945 was Rome, Open City,” wrote influential film critic David Shipman in his book Cinema: The First Hundred Years, “it made every movie made until then seem old-fashioned and artificial, or so it seemed at the time”. 

In this brief sentence, Shipman perfectly encapsulates the impact that Roberto Rossellini’s film had on the world: it startled audiences with its apparent naturalism, made international stars of Rossellini and lead actor Anna Magnani, and played the key role in launching Italian neorealism as an idea.

The film centres on the Resistance activities of Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), the communist leader of the National Liberation Committee, during the 1944 German occupation of Rome. Attempting to avoid capture by the Gestapo, he seeks the help of Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), a Catholic priest, and Pina (Magnani), the pregnant fiancée of a fellow resistance fighter. In telling their story, Rossellini shows us the reality of daily life during the occupation, and paints a sympathetic portrait of the Italian civilians who fought against their cruel German occupiers.

The agonies of this daily life was something that Rossellini and his team knew all too well, having lived through it themselves. Indeed, according to Rossellini, he and co-writers Federico Fellini, Sergio Amidei and Alberto Consiglio began work when Rome was still under occupation, drawing inspiration from their own experiences and the lives of those around them. Rossellini’s self-proclaimed aim was to show things as they were, and to give an honest account of life during wartime.

Rome, Open City (1945)

Production began just months after Rome’s liberation. With the rest of Italy still at war, resources were scarce, and Rome, Open City was made on the streets of the war-ravaged capital with stolen electricity and scraps of 35mm stock supposedly sourced on the black market. Such conditions lent the film a perceived verisimilitude and a rawness familiar from newsreels, and it quickly became the torchbearer for the Italian neorealist style.

Neorealism, as a movement, generally focused on the social and economic struggles of ordinary working people, and made use of non-professional actors, real locations and vernacular dialogue. Often, it is seen as being a post-war reaction to the ‘white telephone’ films of the fascist era – slick escapist fare featuring upper-class characters and luxurious lifestyles – but its roots can be traced at least as far back as the 19th-century realist verismo novels. Meanwhile, several ‘precursors’ can be found within fascist era cinema – see, for instance, Alessandro Blasetti’s 1860 (1933), featuring location shooting, non-professional actors and a focus on a Sicilian shepherd. Indeed, even Rossellini was making docufiction under fascism, with films like La nave bianca (1941), a piece of wartime propaganda shot on location with a cast of non-professionals.

Seen in this light, then, Rome, Open City should be understood in the context of a slowly evolving lineage. Notions of the film’s wholesale ‘realism’ are also largely overstated: Magnani and Fabrizi were already established talents, key locations were built as sets, the carefully structured script was pure melodrama, and it drew heavily from religious art and Catholic symbolism. As Rossellini himself put it later in life, it was “full of old ingredients”. Still, it was precisely the inclusion of these old ingredients, skilfully blended with a dollop of docu-realism, that made the film so accessible; rather than being a complete break with convention, it offered audiences something which looked unflinchingly honest, but wrapped this honesty in a coating that made it easily digestible.

Rome, Open City (1945) poster

Reports of the initial domestic response vary. When the film opened in Rome in September 1945, the horrors of the war were still fresh in the minds of Italian audiences. According to some sources, this made them turn tepidly away from Rome, Open City in search of escapism, while others claim that it led to heavy identification and cathartic tears. Either way, it seems to have struck a nerve, and box office reports from the time do paint a picture of success – and this was certainly the case across the Atlantic.

Under the auspices of an American GI named Rod E. Geiger, Rome, Open City had its New York premiere in February 1946. There, audiences unaccustomed to the brutal realities of the war in Europe sat agape at what they saw as unpolished authenticity. With the apparent rawness of a newsreel, Rossellini’s film taught them what life had been like under the occupation, and the film played solidly for almost two years. Reviewers cheered, and The New York Film Critics Circle awarded it best foreign language film.

Shortly after its New York premiere, Rome, Open City screened at the inaugural Cannes Film Festival. Despite Rossellini later claiming that it played to a small audience and “went quite unnoticed”, it was awarded the ‘Grand Prix du Festival International du Film’ (later renamed as the Palme d’Or). Its place in film history had been secured.

Today, the film’s international success is seen not only as a breakthrough for Italian cinema but also for the Italian people: Rossellini’s decision to omit Italian fascists and populate his Gestapo headquarters with Nazi officials made it clear who the real bad guys were. Despite a speech from Don Pietro proclaiming that Italians shouldn’t think of themselves as helpless victims, the heart-wrenching fate that awaits the Italian characters, and the sadism with which the Germans unleash it, presents a different proposition – one that sympathetically portrays a hapless and oppressed people, and which directly helped to rehabilitate the Italian people internationally in the post-war years.

Rome, Open City (1945)

If the ramifications of this view are still felt in today’s political consciousness, it isn’t Rome, Open City’s only lasting impact. The huge success of Rossellini’s film spearheaded the neorealist movement, paving the way for the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) on the international stage. 

Taken as a whole, the legacy of the neorealist movement is profound and far-reaching: films as diverse as Ingmar Bergman’s Port of Call (Sweden, 1948), Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (India, 1955), Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (Poland, 1955), the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone (Italy, 1977), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (United States, 1978) and Walter Salles’s Central Station (Brazil, 1998) all bear its influence – to name just a smattering of random examples. 

That these films were made in disparate times, places and ways shows just how thoroughly the tenets of neorealism have permeated cinematic language the world over – and all thanks to Rossellini’s trailblazing triumph.

Rome, Open City is back in cinemas in a 4K restoration from 17 May.

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