The Making of Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Open City’

Roma, città aperta (Open City) is widely regarded as the most important film in Italian cinema history. Hence, a great deal of commentary has arisen concerning it, including a whole mythology of originality and difference.

by Peter Brunette

Roma, città aperta (Open City) is widely regarded as the most important film in Italian cinema history. Hence, a great deal of commentary has arisen concerning it, including a whole mythology of originality and difference. It seems an inherent human need to look continually for the truly new that will challenge and break through the rigid determinism of the forms of expression available to us. At the time it was first shown, the film must have seemed utterly different from anything that had gone before. When it is looked at more closely, however, what is most striking is its overwhelming similarity to previous cinema.

It is well known, of course, that the making of the film was carried out in the worst possible conditions, when the occupying German troops had barely left Rome; the producers were all gone, the studios at Cinecittà had been bombed to smithereens, and in a country that was on the verge of social and economic collapse, there was little money available for something as frivolous and nonessential as a film. It is also known that the very hardships borne by Rossellini and his colleagues are precisely what gave the film its unique look and what made it appear, at first, to be so startlingly new. Thus, for example, the fact that Rossellini had to buy his raw film stock from street photographers, splicing together unmatched bits and pieces of thirty-five-millimeter film, also gave to the film its documentary, newsreel “feel” that has been so remarked on over the years. Similarly, Rossellini was forced to film in the streets because the large studios were all gone. Ambient sound and the actors’ voices were dubbed in later, after the film was edited, simply because it was cheaper; most of the filming was done blindly, in fact, because daily rushes would have been a luxury. The problem with most accounts of these creative hardships, however, is that they can easily lead one to believe that the bracing felicities of Open City all came about by accident, as it were, and that Rossellini and the others were only bricoleurs who didn’t have the slightest idea what they were doing. In later years Rossellini sought to counter this impression by insisting that, while the exigencies of the wartime situation posed certain problems that had to be dealt with creatively, they knew exactly what they were after and knew that they were getting it, rushes or no rushes.

The difficulties encountered making Open City , of course, were nothing compared with those of the German occupation itself, to which many attribute the film’s power. Rossellini has many times indicated how profoundly upset he was during this period. The police wore armbands that proclaimed Rome an open city—and thus not to be considered a military target, according to the international rules of war. The film’s title is bitterly ironic, however, for the city was, according to “Jane Scrivener,” the pseudonym of an American woman who later published her diary chronicling those days in Rome, totally controlled by German martial law. The penalty for harboring Allied escapees, for example, or for desertion of work, or even for owning a radio transmitter was death. Taking photographs outside was punishable by life imprisonment. At one point it was even forbidden to ride a bicycle because so many Nazi soldiers were being killed from them.

Details in the accounts of the various screenwriters, actors, and others associated with Open City differ widely, but the basic outlines of the story of how the film came to be made are fairly clear. It seems that the original intention was to make a brief documentary on the life of Don Morosini, the partisan priest who had been executed by the Nazis only a short time earlier. A certain countess had become interested in the project, and, according to Fellini, had herself written a short treatment, though the principal treatment had been done by Alberto Consiglio. In order to make the documentary a success, Aldo Fabrizi, a popular Roman dialect comedian with relatively little film experience, was wanted to play the part of the priest. Since Fellini and Fabrizi were friends, Rossellini came around to meet Fellini so that he, in turn, could be introduced to Fabrizi. The countess was willing to offer Fabrizi 200,000 lire ($350) to play the part, but when Fellini approached him, he shouted, “Eh! What do I give a damn about Don Morosini; they’ll have to give me a million (about $1,750).”1

The other actors came by diverse, largely unconventional paths to the film. Anna Magnani, who was to achieve worldwide fame in the part of Pina, actually was the director’s second choice. He had originally wanted Clara Calamai—the steamy protagonist of Ossessione , a role Visconti had first offered to Magnani—but Calamai was under contract and in the middle of working on another film. Magnani wanted to be paid as much as Fabrizi, however, and she later admitted that it was only a matter of 100,000 lire, a point of principle, that almost caused her to lose “the most important film of my career. I realize now that I was wrong.”2 Magnani was hardly a newcomer to the screen—she had already some sixteen films to her credit since her first role in 1935—but while she was well known to Italian audiences, it was mostly in the guise of broad comedy and revues. The third principal was Marcello Pagliero, in the role of the partisan Manfredi, who was later to finish Rossellini’s aborted Desiderio; he had never before acted in a film. Harry Feist, who plays the Nazi, Bergmann, was a dancer, and Maria Michi, Manfredi’s debauched girlfriend Marina, had been a theater usherette who seems largely to have been chosen on the strength of her amorous ties to scriptwriter Sergio Amidei.

Meanwhile, Rossellini had had the idea of making another short film on the subject of the partisan children who had been active against the Germans, and in a brilliant stroke, apparently the idea of Fellini and Amidei, it was decided to put the two films together, making a full-length fictional film. “And so,” according to Fellini, “in one week, working at my house, in the kitchen because there wasn’t any heat, we wrote the script which became Roma, città aperta , but frankly, without much conviction.”3 Considering that it was now a matter of a full-length film, a million lire for Fabrizi seemed less outrageous.4

The plot that the team of screenwriters came up with is relatively simple in outline, but at the same time delicately interwoven with many diverse strands. Giorgio Manfredi (Pagliero), one of the heads of the Italian Resistance, enlists the aid of the anti-Fascist priest Don Pietro (Fabrizi) and a partisan printer named Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) in keeping him hidden from the Germans. The next morning, Francesco’s wedding day, he is captured by the Nazis and his pregnant fiancée, Pina (Magnani), is shot down by the Germans when she attempts to interfere. Manfredi is betrayed by his girlfriend Marina (Michi), a dancer and prostitute who has been corrupted by drugs by the Nazi lesbian, Ingrid, and he, Don Pietro, and an Australian deserter the priest has been sheltering, are arrested. The deserter hangs himself, and when Manfredi refuses to talk, he is tortured to death in the presence of Don Pietro; the next morning the priest himself is executed while the young boys of his parish, who have been waging their own war against the Germans, look on.5

Open City is not easy to write about. While probably Rossellini’s best-known film, and the film that brought him international fame, it is in many ways his least typical. This film that was quickly to be seen as a direct challenge to the conventional cinema of the time—read, Hollywood cinema—is, in fact, one of Rossellini’s most conventional films, at least in terms of its narrative and dramatic structures. Thus, the many documentary moments of the earlier trilogy that work against the main narrative flow are no longer to be found in Open City . Here, unlike in his previous films, all elements of the mise-en-scène, lighting, dialogue, and everything else, however “realistic,” are rigorously enlisted in the service of the linear narrative. It is difficult to find a reason behind this shift, but it is important to realize that it is Open City , rather than Paisan as most critics have thought, that is the enigma. In other words, if Rossellini’s other films are kept in mind, it becomes clear that the supposedly radical change his filmmaking undergoes between Open City and Paisan is in many ways actually a return to something more characteristic, if more radical vis-à-vis the conventional Hollywood film. True, the antinarrative devices of La nave bianca, Un pilota ritorna , and L’uomo dalla croce are barely more than nods in that direction. Yet, the presence of such devices is unmistakable, as is their absolute absence from Open City . It is this absence that demands explanation, rather than the dedramatization and “deviant” narrative devices of Paisan and later films.

The most probable explanation for the change represented by Open City is that, for the first time, Rossellini’s story was so powerful, and so demanded to be told that a driving narrative impulse pushed aside his subtler, perhaps more typical, concerns. Reality itself had become conventionally “dramatic,” in a sense, by means of a specific series of events —in other words, narratively—and a strong story line may have seemed the best way to capture it. Similarly, he must have realized that simply showing wartime Rome—its visual presence before us continuously—would have an enormous impact. In other words, Rossellini’s characteristic antinarrative interest in documenting a given reality manifests itself here in the ongoing, unspoken statement of the devastated background—Rome itself.

Thus, conventional narrative elements abound, such as the rather obvious slapstick involved when the Austrian deserter frightens us and Don Pietro by pulling out his gun, when he means only to deliver a message rolled up in an ammunition cartridge. Or when Romoletto’s bomb is nearly knocked over in a masterfully choreographed vaudeville gesture. The partisan attack on the truck full of prisoners is clearly in the action-film category, though it is accomplished with a paucity of means that paradoxically causes it to be more convincing than a well-bankrolled Hollywood version would have been. Sergio Amidei, who is generally credited with (or cursed for) these elements of popular narrative, has himself clearly pointed out their utter conventionality:

Open City was made, unfortunately, in an old-fashioned way. From real-life, sure, but old-fashioned, both in its techniques and its script. Certain effects, like Fabrizi’s hitting the old man with the skillet, and the characters played by Michi and Galletti, are the most traditional. Also the technique: we filmed using classic lighting. . . . Open City , which seems the founding film in the renewal of filmmaking is, at base, the continuation of previous films.6

Similarly, the script also manages to stay on the easy level of heroism and cowardice, and these simple notions, the staple of Hollywood Westerns, are never for a moment seriously interrogated. Thus, near the end of the film, when Manfredi the partisan, Don Pietro the priest, and the Austrian deserter find themselves in the same cell, the deserter acts cowardly, later even killing himself, and his cowardice is seen as a moral failure on his part. Manfredi claims that “we’re not heroes,” but every other element of this film conspires to contradict his assertion. (Though Rossellini does perhaps display a bit of self-awareness when he has the Nazi Bergmann say a bit later, “You Italians, whatever party you belong to, are all addicted to rhetoric.”7

But however we might want to chastise Rossellini for his embrace of conventional narrative in this film—if we do—it is clear that he does it very well indeed. There is no slack, no narrative fat. All of the characters are tightly intertwined for maximum efficiency, and the result is a complex and thickly populated fresco. Exposition is accomplished instantly, in bold, swift strokes, and we are plunged into the narrative at a gallop from the first minute of the film. As many critics have noticed, comic and tragic moods alternate throughout the film in an invigorating and emotionally involving way, each providing a counterpoint to the other. Individual scenes are also exquisitely accomplished. Thus, the sequence in which Pina is shot down as she runs after the truck carrying her fiancé Francesco is one of the most brilliantly affecting moments in all film. Pushed up against the wall with the other women, she seems out of harm’s way, so her suicidal outburst is even more shocking when it comes. On one hand, the power of this moment seems to come from the placement of the camera inside the truck as it moves away. Pina runs after it, and when she is cut down, her movement forward in tandem with the camera’s movement forward is abruptly halted and the distance between the camera in the truck and her dead body, lying in the middle of the street in a lump, multiplies at a dizzying rate. But the effect of this sequence is also achieved by an awareness of dramatic balance, for it immediately follows one of the most humorous moments in the film, mentioned earlier by Amidei, when the priest has to knock the grandfather over the head with a frying pan in order to keep him from attracting the attention of the Fascists. We instantly move, then, to Pina’s death sequence, all of which lasts no more than a few seconds, and the emotional and dramatic buildup of which is astounding to watch.8 Leo Braudy, in the introduction to his anthology Focus on Shoot the Piano Player , insightfully links this purposeful alternation of tone with later examples in Truffaut’s film and Joseph Heller’s tragicomic novel Catch 22 . An early French reviewer, Jean Desternes, likened the use of comic counterpoint to enhance the film’s horror to earlier uses in Shakespeare.9

Matching this turn toward a more conventional narrative stance is a kind of “relapse” in the technical area as well. Thus, the two ends of the stylistic spectrum that Rossellini had previously used—the long take and the quick cutting of Eisensteinian montage—are both absent here. The editing is, instead, “classic,” that is, illusionist, meant to be as invisible as the traditional Hollywood variety because primarily in the service of the narrative line and increased emotional involvement. Hence, the editing is rarely elliptical, as it was in earlier films. Close-ups, likewise, though not numerous, are almost always uncharacteristically used to increase the emotional charge of a scene. On the other hand, the long take we had begun to see in the earlier films is also missing, except for a few tracking shots that follow characters who are walking while they talk. Rossellini has maintained in the Baldelli interview that the long take is absent in this film because he couldn’t obtain long enough pieces of film. This argument is less than convincing, however, since the normal-length shots in fact mesh very well with each other and with the other elements of the film’s style.10

But let us now turn to a consideration of the ideas and themes of the film. Most important, of course, is the exploration—thoroughly metaphorized in various ways throughout the film—of nazism as corruption. The evil Major Bergmann tortures and murders in the name of the destiny of the Third Reich. His cohort, Ingrid, is a lesbian; for Rossellini, sexual inversion is the signifier par excellence for decadence, as we shall see again in the homosexual Nazi teacher of Germany, Year Zero. (In a similar vein, later in Open City a Nazi corporal leeringly asks Pina if the priest has been making eyes at her.) Likewise, Rossellini obviously worries that all the young women are being corrupted by the overturning of normal life; this is usually represented as the perversion of the normal (for Rossellini) goal of marrying and having a family. Rossellini attributes this problem to the war in general, however, and is not content to assign it only to the Germans: the young women are corrupted by the Germans in this film, by the Americans in Paisan (Maria Michi plays a somewhat similar role in both films, further enhancing the connection), and by the French and English occupying troops in the Berlin of Germany, Year Zero. Marina’s corruption by promiscuity and drugs in Open City leads her into a kind of lascivious exhaustion, an exhaustion that will become generalized onto the whole German people in Germany, Year Zero; here, however, the impetus of the corrupters’ forward movement keeps the disease projected outward onto the Italians they cynically use.

The vehemence of Rossellini’s outrage against the Nazis in this film is genuine, and it causes him to portray the struggle between good and evil in clear, uncomplicated black-and-white terms—for the last time. But this vehemence also serves to underline the fact that he is taking it very easy indeed on the Italian Fascists. One of the difficulties for a non-Italian audience in watching this film is visually distinguishing the Fascists from the Nazis, and thus Rossellini’s subtle exculpation may be missed. Throughout the film, in fact, the Nazis are seen as the evil ones, the actively malevolent force; the Fascists and other Italian collaborators are portrayed in the humiliating, but decidedly less culpable, role of lackey. The Nazis’ obvious hatred of the Italians is itself thematized, and conveniently serves as one more example of Nazi evil. The occupation of Rome by the Germans has given Rossellini, the quintessential outraged Roman, a clear-cut, one-to-one replacement for the Communist villains of L’uomo dalla croce , and Italian guilt never has to be addressed. At the end of Open City, when Don Pietro is to be executed, the Italian firing squad, respecting the cloth—unlike the barbarian Nazis—wavers and ends up shooting harmlessly into the ground. By a curious reversal, cowardice and bumbling inefficiency become moral values, and it is the Nazi officer who finally has to kill the priest. Throughout the film the Italian collaborators, portrayed as having managed to retain their deepest human values in spite of everything, themselves come to be seen as much the Nazis’ victims as any other group, and therefore have our sympathy. (Even the camera underlines this point, usually shooting down on the humiliated Italian police commissioner and up on the dominant Bergmann in their scenes together.)

Clearly, the most important—and most complicated—theme of Open City concerns the nature of the partnership formed (if not in historical actuality, at least in Rossellini’s mind) to combat Nazi corruption, that between the communists and the Catholic church. This was no mean trick for Rossellini, considering that his previous picture had posed them as natural, bitter enemies. But he does manage, in a remarkable balancing act, to portray them both favorably, primarily because of the handy presence of a common enemy whose horribleness everyone could agree on. For one thing, the director is acknowledging the historical fact that no matter what one personally felt concerning its politics, in effect, the Communist party was the Resistance. The flavor of Rossellini’s accommodation can be gathered in the initial meeting between atheist Manfredi and believer Pina:

MANFREDI: So you’re having a church wedding. . . .

PINA: Yes. Actually, Francesco didn’t want to, but I told him: better for Don Pietro to marry us, at least he’s on the right side, rather than go to City Hall and be married by a Fascist. Don’t you think so?

MANFREDI: In a way, you’re right.

PINA: Yes; the truth is that I . . . really believe in God (p. 32).

Bergmann’s obsessive questioning of the priest at the end of the film provides the chance to offer a new rationale for accepting the Communists. Bergmann shouts that Manfredi is “a subversive, an atheist, an enemy of yours!” and Don Pietro calmly, if rather vaguely, replies: “I am a Catholic priest and I believe that a man who fights for justice and liberty walks in the pathways of the Lord—and the pathways of the Lord are infinite” (p. 130). Hardly a ringing endorsement, as not a few Marxist critics have pointed out, but in terms of the emotion projected at that moment on the screen, certainly convincing. Later, Bergmann plays his trump card in his psychological game with Manfredi when he points out that, while various political and social groups are now allied against the Germans, surely the Communist party will be forsaken when the common enemy is gone. This, of course, is a clear articulation of precisely the fear felt by many progressives at the time that the coalition of Resistance groups was really only a matter of convenience, opposed to any lasting change in Italian political or social life. Further connections between the Communists and Catholics are given a visual palpability. For example, many of the shots of Manfredi while he is being tortured strongly suggest the bruised and battered Savior of Christian iconography. In one shot his arms are even pinned up to the wall. At the end of the torture sequence, an apparatus of some sort subtly casts a crosslike shadow.

Nevertheless, while the Catholic and Communist are, ostensibly, on the same footing, at least in terms of their moral rectitude, the entire film is seen in Catholic, or Christian, terms. Don Pietro is the moral lens through which we are meant to regard the various forms of iniquity on display. Manfredi, in other words, is not really given any thematically important dialogue, and the heavily dramatic form of the story insists that his encounter with the Nazi, Bergmann, take place not on the level of ideas, but rather on the level of action-film machismo—not is he right, but can he withstand torture? The only character who does get to express the presumably Communist version of things is Francesco, in his wistful and captivating talk about the future as he sits with Pina on the stairs in front of his apartment. Here again, however, his desire for freedom and hope in the future are expressed in lovely, but vague and utterly unrealizable terms.

Early Marxist views, like that of the important film theoretician Umberto Barbaro, held that the film had “such a wise and balanced political evaluation that it undoubtedly merits the applause of all honest men.”11 Most early critics, both leftists and nonleftists, agreed primarily in seeing the film as above all “historical” in a way that no other Italian film had ever been. But more recent Marxist critics like Pio Baldelli have complained, with some justice, that Rossellini’s film actually forgets history. For one thing, the blame for Nazi occupation is seen clearly in Christian—that is, ahistorical—terms. This is evident in the scene between Pina and Don Pietro, when, overloaded by misery, she plaintively asks him, “Doesn’t Christ see us?” The priest replies:

A lot of people ask me that, Pina. . . . Doesn’t Christ see us? But are we sure we didn’t deserve this plague? Are we sure we’ve always lived according to the Lord’s laws? And nobody thinks of changing their lives, of examining their lives. Then, when the piper has to be paid . . . everybody despairs, everybody asks: Doesn’t the Lord see us? Doesn’t the Lord pity us? . . . Yes, the Lord will take pity on us. But we have so much to be forgiven, and so we must pray, and forgive much (p. 53).

This particular passage is only one among many, but it is emphasized both visually and narratively, and nothing else in the film ever really says anything to the contrary. The victim, conveniently, is being blamed for being victimized.

Similarly, Armando Borrelli complains that in this film Rossellini is only interested in stressing the tragic destiny of his characters, and makes no attempt to see the Resistance as a critique of the past. Nor do we ever learn what they are fighting for , beyond getting rid of the Nazis.12 Yet, as Mario Cannella has pointed out in an important essay translated some years ago in Screen , it is now clear that the Italian Communist party had itself given up all class analysis during this period in favor of a Stalin-inspired anti-fascist “unity” that was thoroughly uncritical and un-Marxist. Interest, in other words, had shifted imperceptibly from protecting the workers to protecting the “fatherland,” and any party member who disagreed was disciplined. In Cannella’s view, it was this that led to the reestablishment of bourgeois democracy and the defeat of the party.13 Thus it seems beside the point to blame Rossellini for not portraying the revolutionary potential of the Resistance. But the Marxists are right when they say that despite appearances, Rossellini is not really interested in history in Open City . As the non-Marxist Mino Argentieri has pointed out, the “historic conjunction” of the Church and the Communist party leads, in Rossellini, to an “ahistorical meaning, a spiritual propensity, the nth degree of the tragedy of existence and life together.”14 Rossellini is not, strictly speaking, historical precisely because he is looking for what, in human beings, transcends history.

Another of Baldelli’s complaints, related to the forgetting of history, is that the common people are only shown, even in terms of the Resistance, as pawns, as sufferers, as executors of the will of others: “The masses . . . belong to the important moments, they even die; but always impulsively, following their instincts and ‘nature.'”15 (But Baldelli is forgetting the admittedly brief but anonymous and successful partisan attack on the Nazi convoy.) The chief sufferers, of course, are the women. Rossellini’s men are often larger-than-life figures who fight for causes that are vaguely defined but nevertheless transcend their own meager individual selves. They are the initiators of all the action; the women, on the other hand, both good and bad, are seen as acted upon, rather than as actors in their own right. Pina is killed when she takes action, to be sure, but, again, her action is motivated by natural “womanly instinct” in the defense of her man. The only woman who is depicted as an active force is Ingrid, and she is seen significantly as a lesbian, and thus thoroughly masculinized. The short colloquy between the young boy Marcello and a young girl about his age, Andreina, who sleeps in the same room with him, is symptomatic in this instance, and hints at the greater complexities of sexual role that are to come in Fear and other films made during the Bergman era:

MARCELLO: We sure fixed them good, eh?

ANDREINA: You never take me with you!

MARCELLO: You? You’re a woman!

ANDREINA: So what? Women can’t be heroes?

MARCELLO: Sure they can, but Romoletto says that women always mean trouble (p. 65).

The sexist implications of this colloquy are perhaps “innocent,” but clear.16

The positive side of the film’s depiction of the masses concerns Rossellini’s much-praised (by Marxist and non-Marxist alike) sense of coralità , that concern for the group above the individual, which we saw in operation in the earlier films. Thus, the warm-hearted working-class jokes and the good-natured kidding begin almost immediately. Pina gives some of the bread she has obtained by staging a riot on the baker’s to the policeman whose family is just as hungry as everyone else’s. A delightful Renoirean forgiveness pervades the film; human error and petty wrongdoing, seen in the context of the massive brutality of the Nazis, is treated indulgently and largely regarded as an unavoidable product of the times. Thus, the sexton crosses himself before he, too, plunges into the crowd assaulting the bakery, and the embarrassing fact of Pina’s prewedding pregnancy is tacitly forgiven by all, including the priest. Again, however, despite Marxist approval, it is clear that this coralità is not motivated in Rossellini’s mind by any class solidarity; instead, he sees it in terms of Christian love for one’s neighbor.

Most conflicting interpretations of the film’s basic theme center visually around its final images. As Don Pietro is about to be executed, he hears the young boys whistling as a signal of their support. He is shot, and the last image of the film shows the boys, weary, but supporting each other, trudging down a hill back toward the center of town. The Roman skyline, dominated by the dome of Saint Peter’s, forms the background of the shot as the film ends. The sequence is clearly symbolic, but of what? Some have chosen to emphasize the dome, insisting that only in the Church is there hope for the future of Italy. But the dome is seen firmly in its context of the entire city of Rome, just as the Church is an important part of Italian society, but hardly everything. Some have chosen to see the ending as utterly pessimistic, full of death and destruction,17 while others have emphasized the fact that the boys, symbols of Italy’s future even though crippled and depressed, are at least supporting one another down the hill.

In any case, the film appropriately ends with this evocative long shot of Rome, for in many ways, Rome is its chief protagonist, standing synecdochically for the rest of Italy. It is the first word of the film’s Italian title, and is before us at all times throughout the film, either directly, as visual background, or indirectly suggested through its particular social relations reenacted in the interiors. The film opens, as well, with vibrant location shots that set us firmly in the midst of the ancient city, and we recognize the antlike Germans we see running about from our bird’s-eye perspective as the interlopers they are. We first meet the German officer Bergmann after the camera pulls back from a map of Rome in his office, suggesting that his contact with the city, and by extension that of the other Germans as well, can only be of an abstract, second-order level. The point is further underlined when we learn that all of Bergmann’s dealings with the city are through photographs of its inhabitants. When the Italian police commissioner asks how Manfredi was tracked down, Bergmann replies: “I met him right here, on this desk. Every afternoon I take a long walk through the streets of Rome, but without stepping out of my office” (p. 13). Again, the Germans are associated with all that is artificial, second-hand, cut off from the organic life of the people. Rome is eternal, the Nazis are temporary.

When the film was first screened for prospective distributors and other film people about town, the reception was intensely disappointing. They were appalled at how “badly” the film was made and were shocked by the rawness of many of its scenes. Rossellini and his coworkers were crushed. Yet out of their disappointment arose a legend of utter rejection that is simply not borne out by the facts. In many interviews Rossellini complained that the condemnation was universal, and his brother, Renzo, speaks bitterly in his autobiography of carrying negative press clippings around in his wallet for years. According to the legend, all of Rossellini’s friends hated the film and every distributor refused to take it, but for lack of anything better it was presented as the Italian selection at Cannes in 1946, where it enjoyed a similar lack of success. The big breakthrough occurred when the film opened two months later in Paris to rave reviews and an equally strong response at the box office. Soon after, the same thing happened in the United States; Italian critics and distributors finally saw the error of their ways, the film was rereleased in Italy, and thus the film’s makers were vindicated when it became successful in its birthplace as well.

But as with most legends of total failure or total success, the truth lies somewhere in between. Obviously, Rossellini’s friends and potential distributors were put off by a film that so thoroughly repudiated the canons of accepted good taste, in terms of both its content and its “unprofessional” form. When Open City came along, it represented the first full-fledged look at those unpalatable aspects of life that had been kept off the screen for so long—the reality of torture, sexuality, and dirty streets. Visconti’s Ossessione had explored similar territory, but had been suppressed a mere week after its release in 1942 and thus had little effect on the public’s (and the critics’) cinematic expectations. The condemnation of Open City was far from universal, however. For example, Carlo Lizzani, writing in Film d’oggi in November 1945, shortly after the film’s first appearance, exclaimed in the opening line of his review: “Finally I’ve seen an Italian film! By this I mean a film which tells a story about us, about the experiences of our country, about facts that concern us.” Lizzani also grasped the immense historical importance of the film as well:

An Italian director can offer our cinema those gifts of communication and a wide and popular persuasiveness which it has been lacking up to this time, even in the works of the best directors, and which alone can guarantee it a national and especially international success. The people today don’t want an empty and sloppy cinema, but neither do they want a cinema for aesthetes. Rossellini’s essential merit is to have found the rhythm and the movement best suited to make accessible to the vast public the new contents of which the film is messenger, to relate them to the most diverse sensibilities. . . . I would say that this film could be just the thing to start off our new rebirth.18

The novelist Alberto Moravia, writing his film column in the September 30, 1945, issue of the anti-Fascist journal La nuova Europa , praised the film’s intense realism.19 Alessandro Blasetti, by that time a kind of elder statesman of Italian cinema and one of its most respected practitioners, says that after the first press screening of Open City , “I felt the need to go meet Rossellini who was waiting outside with ‘indifferent’ trepidation and I hugged him for all of us; the gesture was really emotional and grateful.”20 Rossellini later complained that the film was barely noticed when it came out, but Mario Gromo, the veteran reviewer for the powerful Turin newspaper La Stampa , wrote of it very favorably and suggested later that it was little mentioned (and thus little seen) because of a simple lack of space in the newspapers, pointing out that in 1945, newspapers came out in only two pages. In the introduction to his collected reviews written some years later, Gromo remembers with frustration “the breath I had to spend one evening in November 1945 to be able to devote thirty-six lines to Open City instead of just twenty.”21

The film was an even greater success with the public, earning over 61 million lire in its first four months and going on to become the largest-grossing film of the year. (Ironically, no other neorealist film, nor any other film of Rossellini’s, was ever to be as successful at the box office again.) Reactions in France and America were even more favorable. One reason was that Open City and Paisan were released in these countries within a few months of each other, and thus the effect of witnessing something new was reinforced. Jean Desternes spoke of them as “overwhelming,” and offered a sophisticated analysis of the films that placed them firmly in European literary, philosophical, and cinematic traditions of realism. He also sounded the first stirrings of a theme that was later to be taken up and amplified by the French phenomenologists, when Rossellini’s countrymen had thoroughly given up on him. According to Desternes, Pina and Marcello “really are that woman and that child, giving proof to their existence: they are there and that’s how it is.”22 An even more important review was that by the widely known film historian Georges Sadoul, who discussed Open City and Paisan in Les Lettres françaises , mistakenly referring throughout to the director as Alberto Rossellini. He compared them to two French films of the Resistance, Lindtberg’s La Dernière Chance and Clement’s La Bataille du rail (both now largely forgotten), especially in terms of their similar use of real locations and nonprofessional acting.23 Sadoul also struck a note that was especially to preoccupy American reviewers when he said that Open City was clearly more important to cinema history than the last two hundred films made in Hollywood. Thus, John McCarten, in the New Yorker , called it “the best that has ever come from Italy,” and wondered why the characters were all so fresh, especially the children, compared with the “saccharine and inept” children offered us by Hollywood.24Life magazine, in a picture spread, approvingly pointed to the film’s “earthy verisimilitude” and noted that its violence and “plain sexiness” went far beyond anything Hollywood could do in projecting “a feeling of desperate and dangerous struggle.”25

The most dramatic American reaction to the film was surely that of James Agee, at that time the film critic for the Nation . His March 23, 1946, review opened with this remarkable statement: “Recently I saw a moving picture so much worth talking about that I am still unable to review it. . . . I will probably be unable to report on the film in detail for the next three or four weeks.”26 When Agee did finally feel up to writing about the film for the April 13 issue, he praised its immediacy and its avoidance of the phony populist sentimentality of Works Progress Administration murals. But what struck Agee above all, and critics of all nationalities ever since, was the film’s startling realism. This is a notoriously difficult concept to deal with, of course, but our thinking about Rossellini, especially during this period, is so tied up with it that we must now consider it more abstractly and in some depth.

Because most of the filming was done in the midst of actual exteriors, and not those recreated in a studio or on the back lot, the film quite naturally has a look that makes it utterly different from the conventional film of the time; in this sense, then, “realistic” means “different from Hollywood.” The anti-Hollywood bias is also evident in the choice of individual actors for their similarity to the mix of people one finds on the street, rather than for their good looks. Thus, makeup, favorable lighting and soft focus are eschewed in favor of something closer to the way we encounter people in real life. But something happens to “real life” when it is translated to the screen, and what we call realism actually consists of a set of expectations that is related to reality, of course, but in conventional rather than natural ways. Thus, for example, it would obviously be more “real,” more like real life, for people being photographed to look at the camera, but then, paradoxically, the film would no longer seem realistic to us at all.

Furthermore, as the Soviet semiotician Jurij Lotman has pointed out, the “poetics of ‘refusals'” associated with Italian neorealism “can only be effective against a remembered background of cinema art of the opposite type.”27 The meaning and emotional effect of neorealism, in other words, resides not in itself, but precisely in how it differs from what preceded it. Neorealism’s vaunted window on reality thus depends at the most basic level, paradoxically, on practices of artifice to be understood. As Lotman says concerning Visconti’s La terra trema , “The art of naked truth, trying to rid itself of all existing kinds of artistic conventionality, requires an immense culture in order to be perceived as such.”28

Naturally, Rossellini and the other directors associated with neorealism did not consider their practice in these analytic terms, nor did their earliest supporters such as the French critic André Bazin. They did not think of themselves as operating within the confines of preexistent codes, but rather—and this is what makes them almost unique in cinematic history—as moving ever closer to reality itself . In Rossellini’s most limpid and direct formulation of this tendency, “Things are there. Why manipulate them?”29 The underlying assumption, of course, is that when these “things” have been transferred to the screen, they will somehow still be “there.” At one point, Bazin even makes the translation process almost quantifiable: “We shall call realist any system of expression, any narrative procedure which tends to make more reality appear on the screen.”30 His most gnomic statement specifically concerning Rossellini is that he “directs facts”31 —not, of course, cinematic facts, but the facts that are seen as inhering in external reality (and available to us), rather than as constituted in a system of signification. For Bazin, reality signifies, at its deepest level, directly: “The world of Rossellini is a world of pure acts, unimportant in themselves but preparing the way (as if unbeknownst to God himself) for the sudden dazzling revelation of their meaning.”32 By logical extension, then, the greatest film will, paradoxically, do away with itself (as representation) in its direct minfestation of being. Thus, Bazin is led to speak of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as “one of the first examples of pure cinema. There are no more actors, no more story, no more mise-en-scène, that is to say finally in the aesthetic illusion of reality—no more cinema.”33

Bazin was, of course, always aware that screen reality was only an “aesthetic illusion.” What else could it be? Furthermore, the most epistemologically sophisticated of these directors and critics knew and freely admitted that this raw reality must be “filtered” through the consciousness of the director, because otherwise what one ended up with was an arbitrary surface depiction that barely pierced the skin of the real. But the purpose and result of this authorial intervention, this mediation, in effect, was always to get to a cinematic representation of reality that was somehow more “real” than reality itself. The appeal is made to a truth that exists beyond, though not so far beyond as to be uncapturable, of course. Associated with this cinematic pursuit of truth is a concomitant theory of essences, of a “truer,” “higher” reality, that has always been linked with the notion of aesthetic realism since the advent of the mimetic theory of art. Thus we find Hegel, for example, maintaining, “Far from being simple appearances and illustrations of ordinary reality, the manifestations of art possess a higher reality and a truer existence.”34 The long shadow of Plato is everywhere here.

In order to question and perhaps begin to account for the fierce energy invested in this neorealist, phenomenological compulsion toward the essence of reality, we will first have to consider more closely the nature of the film’s relation to that preexistent reality that may be called its “raw material.” To do this, we will have to take yet another step backwards and examine what we mean by reality itself. My basic assumption is that there is a given reality that preexists our intentions and desires and that forms a ceaseless copresence for all our activity, whether we are aware of it or not. I am thinking of the entity, “the world,” that Maurice Merleau-Ponty speaks of in “What Is Phenomenology?” as “not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible.”35 In contrast to Merleau-Ponty, however, I would hold that, whenever we regard this preexistent reality as in any way meaningful, these meanings are being imposed by our own consciousness (collectively speaking, of course). Reality, in other words, is not constituted by an uncomplicated “out there” to which we can have direct, unmediated access. We cannot help but process everything through our own particular culture, which exists beyond our individual control and not only filters what we experience, but actually produces it. Harold Brown, a philosopher of science, has argued in his book Perception, Theory, and Commitment that, far from perception providing us with pure facts, “the knowledge, beliefs and theories we already hold play a fundamental role in determining what we perceive.” In his felicitous, and disarmingly simple phrase, we actually “perceive meanings.”36 We continuously make representations to ourselves, mostly as metaphors, as Nietzsche saw, that mediate reality for us. Prior artistic practice is also implicated here, for, as Roman Jakobson has maintained, the traditions and conventions of visual representation largely determine the very act of visual perception itself. In other words, before we can talk about how a film represents reality, we must be aware that we already represent and thus construct this reality, continually, in our normal daily mental activity.

Film, in its turn, then, represents what is in fact an already “represented” reality. Compared with other systems of representation, of course, film seems to enjoy a privileged status in terms of its relations to its referent. Jean-Paul Fargier has suggested some of the ideological implications of this fact:

People used to say about statues and portraits, “He looks as though he might open his mouth any minute and say something.” or “He looks as though he might burst into movement.” But the “as though” gives the game away; despite the appearance, something was lacking , and everybody knew it. Whereas in the cinema, there is no “as though.” People say “The leaves are moving.” But there are no leaves. The first thing people do is deny the existence of the screen: it opens like a window , it is “transparent.” This illusion is the very substance of the specific ideology secreted by the cinema.37

What we must remember, in other words, is that this privileged link to reality does not in any way lessen the fact that cinema is as dependent upon preexistent, “nonnatural” codes and systems to be understood as any other medium. The point is that the inherently greater superficial proximity to reality of film can lead easily into essentialist assumptions about the cinema as a place of direct, unmediated experience that avoids the problems that beset other, more obviously artificial, systems of representation.

In cinema we are lulled by the fact that aspects of film can seem to be “like” aspects of reality. But, according to Lotman, “The very concept of ‘likeness’ which seems so immediate and axiomatic to the audience is, in actuality, a fact of culture derived from previous artistic experience and from certain types of artistic codes employed at a particular time in history.”38 Lotman’s example is that of the black-and-white film that, until very recently at any rate, has always been taken as somehow inherently more “realistic” even though we know, of course, that reality is in color.

Seeing a film, then, presupposes first an ongoing, unconscious daily operation that consists of systematizing an inchoate reality and “reading” it in terms of the codes that we both put and find there. This already represented reality is then represented again in film by means of a certain labor on the part of the filmmaker. It does not simply happen “naturally.” Much avant-garde cinema in fact deliberately foregrounds the notion of production, thus helping us to see that the reality depicted, as well as the film, is a made, constructed, and thus historical reality. Most classic cinema, however, is interested in depicting an emotionally and psychologically complicated world, perhaps, but not one that is ontologically complicated or open to question. The very power of the image to show “real” objects, “real” people, and “real” behavior thus seems to grant it a privileged point of view. Even the correspondence between the seen and the heard, between the images on the screen and the sound track, reinforces the comforting notion of wholeness and coherence, the idea that the world is a place where things make sense. This very obviousness of film’s depiction of reality has its political aspect as well, and can be seen as implicated, despite its apparent “innocence,” in the maintenance of the political and social status quo. As the Marxist paradigm has it, the dominant ideology of the ruling class always poses itself as natural, as not constructed, precisely because if the working classes could ever realize that the social reality in which they lived less well than others was made —in other words, the product of historical forces and not “the way things were meant to be”—they might begin to take steps to unmake that reality.

This very sense of wholeness I have been outlining above, which seems to be produced by most films, is seen by Bazin as the distinguishing characteristic of neorealism. In his remarkable essay entitled “In Defense of Rossellini,” he approvingly maintains that neorealism’s main feature is “its claim that there is a certain ‘wholeness’ to reality. . . . To put it still another way, neorealism by definition rejects analysis, whether political, moral, psychological, logical, or social, of the characters and their actions. It looks on reality as a whole, not incomprehensible, certainly, but inseparably one.”39 Bazin praises Rossellini’s Europa ’51 because in it he “strips the appearances of all that is not essential, in order to get at the totality in its simplicity.”40

One immediate effect of this privileging of the essence of reality over mere appearance and the accompanying insistence on film’s ability to re-present this essence on the screen is to place the practice of neorealist filmmaking firmly within the Western metaphysical tradition of presence , most recently and powerfully critiqued by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In this ubiquitous, inescapable system, being is defined as that which is present, or is capable of being present, in time or space, or self-present to the mind. No provision is made for the enabling absent, which, if meaning is always constituted differentially (as day, for example, “creates” night, and vice-versa), must also be paradoxically “present” in the form of a “trace” that is both there and not there. It is thus necessary for neorealism and its theorists to employ what Derrida calls the “logic of the supplement” (the completion of the supposedly already “full” term through its “incomplete” opposite), for this essence of reality can, of course, only be made manifest through the specific and the particular, which are, by definition, nonessential. As Derrida points out in Of Grammatology , imitation (mimesis), it is believed, adds nothing; it is, in other words, merely a kind of “supplement.” But if mimesis really adds nothing, why bother? In terms of our inquiry, what arises in cinema is the paradoxical situation in which the neorealist representation of reality somehow adds , as a supplement, the essence of that reality it represents. Hence, the essence comes from the outside, from elsewhere. But, as Derrida rhetorically asks, “Is that imitative supplement not dangerous to the integrity of what is represented and to the original purity of nature?”41 In fact, this very danger shows up in Bazin’s complaint that the “necessary illusion of film . . . quickly induces a loss of awareness of the reality itself, which becomes identified in the mind of the spectator with its cinematographic representation.42

For Bazin and the other phenomenological critics, the project is at base a religious one, and the finding of fullness in a cinema that embodies the fullness of reality itself is a way to find (or to constitute) what Derrida has called the transcendental signified, or, in a more familiar formulation, God. This is not a project to be taken lightly, of course, for with this end point firmly in place all of the difference, discontinuity, and incompleteness that characterize the world can be made meaningful or at least disguised, and the yawning abyss of absence covered over by this ground of last resort. If reality is whole, and if the cinema can convey this wholeness, then everything that we experience in life that is contingent or in some way compromised (in other words, everything) can be naturalized and made to seem ultimately explicable and thus less threatening. The fixity of the end point (God, the totality, or the essence of reality) can then be seen as grounding the play of difference and the endlessly receding chain of signification.

This neorealist and phenomenological goal of reproducing the seamless web of reality directly on the screen, however, is foredoomed by the difference that makes it always dependent for its meaning on something outside itself. Even what is called neorealism, as we saw earlier, is constituted at least as much by differences both external and internal as by its own identity. This is why endless polemical pages have been wasted in trying to fix its defining characteristics (in other words, its essence), its beginning and end, and so on. Similarly, each filmmaker’s body of work—and each individual film—will be marked by gaps and discontinuities, rough edges, details that do not fit, all of which must be forgotten or repressed if we are to make general statements about the “essence” of a filmmaker’s career or even the meaning of a specific film. But because these films, like all works of art, are in fact the site of an endless, finally irrepressible, play of difference, if allowed to speak freely, they will tell a jumbled, but perhaps exciting, tale that points to their own internal discrepancies and in so doing will then deconstruct themselves.

This play of difference can be seen clearly at work in Rossellini’s films in a problematic area where the represented real (that is, what we think of as part of ordinary experience) and the realistic come into conflict. Conventional cinema demands a basic level of plausibility, enough to allow us to put ourselves emotionally into the created world of the film. It accomplishes this through the use of real surface detail (this is why most films are shot on location nowadays, and is closely related to Roland Barthes’ description of l’effet de réel in literature), but even more importantly through “realistic” acting, which is actually only tangentially, though complexly, related to our sense of the way people act in real life. Another way of achieving this believability is through the overt naturalizing devices of narrative technique and structure, with their well-defined beginnings, middles, and ends, clear plot lines, and well-constructed dramatic and emotional building, none of which, of course, could be further from our daily experience of life. We perceive something as realistic, in short, when it corresponds to a set of conventionalized expectations (largely derived from previous film or novelistic practice) about what people in movies do, not when it corresponds to actual empirical experience. All of this provides the comforting envelope of believability of the conventional film that enables us to be inserted into the complex dual process of what we loosely call audience identification. We are not actually meant to take what we see as reality , of course, or we would try to jump into the screen to help out of their predicaments the characters to whom we have become emotionally tied. But when we experience, with excitement, a film as more realistic than usual—that is, more like “real life” than previous films we have seen—I would argue it is because it is pushing against the currently accepted boundaries of the realistic, closer toward the dangerous unpredictability of the (represented) real .

This “reality effect” seems to stem from the ironic fact that we think an event or image is more real precisely because we have not seen it before on the screen. In the theater we assume unconsciously that we are in the midst of coded behavior and rule-governed spectacle whose purpose is to represent that which it is not, and that if we see merely what we have already seen in other movies it will only be comfortably believable rather than truly real. I would say, therefore, that the very thing we quite properly bewail—movies are getting ever more gruesome and violent—may be part of their inexorable logic. The thrill of a “more realistic” film always comes when we sense, at some level, that an already accepted (and thus tamed) realism is being pushed beyond, toward the real itself , and thus, as in life, screen events are “out of control” and we cannot predict what will happen. What is especially interesting is that when the event or image does push through this barrier of the realistic, we can experience it as more “real” (in other words, closer to our perceptions of life outside the theater) and at the same time as somehow fake because the illusion of an independently existing, uncontingent world, laboriously created on the screen, has been broken. It is this partially controlled infusion of the real that keeps us on the edge of our seats; when it overcomes the fiction, however, it can rudely threaten to reveal that it is all only make-believe.

Thus, Open City was seen as more realistic because it was, in effect, expanding the boundaries of the prevailing code of realism by incorporating the real in the form of location shooting, authentic languages, unglamorous actors, and so on. Forty years later we can easily see how many of its novelties have become standard filmmaking practice, in the process losing much of their power. What is more interesting is that, in the films following Open City , Rossellini will use this tension between the realistic and the real, along with other elements we might provisionally call expressionist, to question his own filmmaking practice and the easy assumptions of the neorealist aesthetic. In Open City , however, Rossellini contents himself with a few stylized touches that have upset critics bent on seeing him as the quintessential realist. Their complaints usually take the form of finding fault with certain elements of the film that are “unrealistic,” and thus said to clash with its prevailing texture. Some, for example, have objected that the layout of the gestapo headquarters—an office flanked on one side by a torture chamber and on the other by an officers’ lounge where Beethoven is heard and champagne is drunk—is utterly impossible. These critics object that the inauthenticity of the Nazi interiors clashes continually with the realism of the exteriors, without ever realizing that this is surely the point, for it is in perfect keeping with the association, insisted upon throughout the film, between the Germans and a decadent, sterile artificiality.44 (It also allows for some brilliant sound editing when, at various points, Manfredi’s screams merge with the light strains of classical music coming from the other room.) Defenders of Rossellini like Giuseppe Ferrara take the wrong tack, I think, when they offer elaborate arguments that these are not really violations of realism because that is the way it really was.

It seems far more productive to posit an expressionist side to Rossellini—barely visible here, of course—even if it destroys the comforting, symmetrical certainty of the director’s standard realist label. The arrangement of the gestapo headquarters then becomes clearly symbolic, a stylized landscape and almost mathematical demonstration of the corruption of Nazi culture. The lack of a total commitment to realism, in other words, enables the director to get at things that lie beyond realism. Looking at Rossellini provisionally as an expressionist, as we shall see, also helps us to recover many of his films that have been written off as failures because they are not realistic enough. It is tempting to say that this very tension between realism, expressionism, and the real is “at the heart” of the Resistance trilogy, but this would only serve to ground my reading of Rossellini in my own, no less culpable, version of essentialism.

In Open City the stylized, self-reflexive touches that point to the film as artifice are light. The gestapo Bergmann can operate in Rome only through the second-level order of representation found in his photographs, as we saw earlier, and the partisan Francesco reminds Pina, his wife-to-be, of their long-gone innocence when they imagined an early end to the war: “And everybody thought it’d be over soon, and that we’d only get to see it in the movies. But . . . ” (p. 69). It is over now, and we are seeing it in the movies, and what we see in the movies is not what happened, exactly, nor can it ever be. What Francesco is hinting at, perhaps, is that film reality and lived experience are, truly, worlds apart.

* * *


1. Faldini and Fofi, L’avventurosa storia , p. 90. An entertaining book by Ugo Pirro, Celluloide (Milan: Rizzoli, 1983) tells the story of the beginning of neorealism in enormous detail, including the filming of Open City . The problem is that the account is heavily fictionalized, with invented conversations and so on, and in the absence of a single note, source, or reference to an interview, the book cannot be taken as a definitive account of the period.

2. Faldini and Fofi, L’avventurosa storia , p. 94.

3. Fabrizi has given an utterly different, completely unconvincing version of the genesis of this film. According to him, the idea of the full-length film was his, and he suggested adding the story of the children and the woman killed by the Nazis; the enlarged plot was then given to Rossellini, who Fabrizi introduced to Fellini. (See Angelo Solmi, Federico Fellini [London: Merlin Press, 1963], pp. 76-78, for a discussion of both accounts.)

4. Money posed a continual problem. De Sica tells an amusing story that gives a rather more realistic picture of how works of “genius” are made:

It’s not as if one day we were all sitting around a table on the Via Veneto, Rossellini, Visconti, I, and the others, and said, “Hey, let’s start neorealism.” We hardly even knew each other. One day I was told that Rossellini had started working on a film again: “A film on a priest,” I was told, and that was it. Another day I saw him and Amidei sitting on the entrance steps of an apartment building in Via Bissolati. I asked them what they were doing. They shrugged their shoulders and said, “We’re looking for some money. We don’t have enough dough to finish the film.” “What film?” “The story of a priest, you know, Don Morosini, the one that the Germans shot” (Faldini and Fofi, L’avventurosa storia , p. 90).

A small amount of money did come, eventually, from an unsteady stream of entrepreneurs and first-time producers, who contributed whatever small change they could and then went their way. Several years later Rossellini was to tell a reporter for Variety that it had cost 11 million lire ($19,000) to make the film, complaining that it should only have cost 6 million ($10,400) ( Variety , November 3, 1948). Rossellini himself sold nearly everything he and his estranged wife owned to finance the filming (he ended up losing about $600), which was done in a makeshift studio in the Via degli Avignonesi small enough, according to Fellini, to be filled with the smoke from ten cigarettes. The only scenes shot in this “studio” were those in the Nazi headquarters (meant to replicate the infamous S.S. center on the Via Tasso), Don Pietro’s room, and Marina’s apartment. (During the filming of the sequence in Marina’s apartment, the actress apparently went to open the door because the script required her to listen in on Manfredi, only to find that the door had been painted on). One other reason for making the film here was that they could tap into the electricity that the Allied forces were providing for the newspaper Il Messagero . Since the electricity came on only at night, it was then that the principle interior shooting was done. All the other scenes were shot on actual streets.

According to Omar Garrison in the New York Post (February 1, 1950), Rossellini had hidden a stolen camera in his apartment on the Piazza di Spagna and had secretly begun shooting sequences of the Germans changing the guard, one day accidentally finding himself filming the roundup of hostages. There is no other evidence, however, to suggest that Garrison’s account is in any way correct. Similarly, the often-repeated story that Rossellini filmed the actual departure of the German troops from Rome is more a testimony to the convincing power of his mise-en-scène than to the truth. (In one interview, however, Rossellini does insist that filming began on January 19, 1944, that is, five months before the Germans left, but other testimony has it that this date actually marks the beginning of the preproduction planning of the film. It is true, nevertheless, that Rossellini was able to use real German prisoners of war in the film.) Another exaggeration is George Sadoul’s statement, not supported by any elaboration or listing of sources, that the scenario for the film was “almost literally dictated” to Rossellini and Amidei by one of the heads of the Resistance. ( Histoire du cinéma mondial des origines à nos jours , 9th ed. [Paris: Flammarion, 1972], p. 329).

The story of how the film finally found its way to the United States, with such great success, is fascinating. It seems that on the floor above the makeshift studio of the Via degli Avignonesi was a bordello, heavily frequented during the hours of shooting, unfortunately, and especially popular with the newly arrived American troops. A continuous stream of lust-minded young men would stumble into the filming area, drawn by the bright lights, thinking that they had found what they had been looking for. Fellini tells a wonderful story about how a drunken American sergeant named Rod Geiger stumbled in the studio one evening while looking for a girl, fell flat on his face, and commenced bleeding profusely from the nose. When he had recovered sufficiently to ask what was going on, he insisted that he was a big American film producer and wanted to buy the film. In fact, he did precisely that, finally paying twenty thousand dollars for the rights. He took the few copies to the United States, sold the rights to a real distributor, and the film went on to enjoy an enormous success at the World Theater in Manhattan, where it ran uninterrupted for over a year.

5. In later years Sergio Amidei, clearly the principle motivating force behind the initial screenplay, became somewhat bitter, as screenwriters are wont to do, because he was largely excluded from the encomia heaped upon the director. As he tells it—and independent evidence often supports him—many of the characters and the episodes of the film were taken directly from his own life. Much more politically committed than the rest of the production team, he had, in fact, once escaped the Germans by going over the rooftops of the surrounding apartment houses, just as Manfredi does in the beginning of the film. Cesar Negarville, an important Resistance leader on whom the character of Manfredi is said to have been principally based, actually had a room in Amidei’s apartment, put there by Amidei’s landlady, who appears in the opening shots of the film. Maria Michi, Amidei’s girlfriend at the time, had also actually once called Amidei while a German raid was in progress, just as happens in the film. Amidei further maintained that the episode in which Pina is shot down by the Germans as she chases after her captured fiancé, Francesco, was taken from a real event that had occurred on the Piazza Adriana that he had learned about in Unità, the underground Communist newspaper. The actual iconography of Pina’s moving, desperate gesture, though, interestingly enough, came from an altogether less elevated source. According to Amidei, Magnani was arguing furiously one day with her boyfriend of the moment: to save himself, he jumped on the back of a film production truck that was just then pulling away, and the company was treated to the sight of Magnani running after him, violently hurling the worst insults in his direction. It seemed such an effective piece of drama that Amidei wrote it into the script. (See Amidei’s “Open City Revisited,” New York Times [February 16, 1947, sec. 2, p. 5].) What Amidei neglects to mention is that, according to Patrizia Carrano, Magnani’s biographer, he wanted to trip her with a wire to make the scene more convincing, but Rossellini refused. (La Magnani: Il romanzo di una vita [Milan: Rizzoli, 1982], p. 98.)

Many of the film’s details were suggested by the real life of Father Giuseppe Morosini. “Jane Scrivener” tells us, for example, that he was betrayed to the gestapo, who found arms and a transmitter he had collected for the men he was hiding. The pope tried to save him, to no avail, but he was allowed to say mass on the morning of his execution. Her account of his last moments is very close to what happens in the film:

Before being blindfolded he kissed his crucifix, blessed the platoon of soldiers who were to shoot him, and publicly forgave the man who had betrayed him. Possibly because the executioners were overcome by his quiet heroism, he was not killed by their volley, and fell to the ground, wounded but conscious. He begged for the Sacrament of Extreme Unction . . . , after which the commanding officer shot him at the base of the skull with a revolver ( Inside Rome With the Germans [New York: Macmillan, 1945], p. 152).

Even Don Pietro’s last lines—”It’s not difficult to die, it’s difficult to live”—are, according to Giuseppe Ferrara, who quotes from Salvatore Morosini’s book on his brother Don Morosini, the real priest’s final words ( Il nuovo cinema italiano , p. 106. Ferrara also suggests that the Nazi Bergmann was a composite of Kappler, the head of the S.S. on the Via Tasso, and Dolman, the German commander of Rome during the occupation.)

6. Faldini and Fofi, L’avventurosa storia , p. 95. Another aspect of the film’s “conventionality” is that characters often seem to be filling preconceived roles derived from the stage and vaudeville. Thus Rossellini uses a kind of character shorthand to fix a “type,” as in his treatment of Don Pietro. He is presented as a buffoon right from the beginning—when he is hit with the soccer ball—and the effective, if somewhat cute, piece of comic business with the statue of San Rocco and the naked Venus seems instantly to fix him for us as a whimsical, and in many ways frightfully innocent, man, enhancing the incongruity of the fact that he is about to enter a clandestine printing shop. All of this is well done; the only point to be made is that this kind of character typing (Manfredi as the heroic partisan, Pina as the poor but honest romana , Marina as the corrupt prostitute) so dear to the nineteenth-century novel, the popular stage, and Hollywood melodrama, is something that Rossellini will for the most part avoid in his later work.

7. The War Trilogy of Roberto Rossellini (New York: Grossman, 1973), p. 126. (All further references to the script will be included in the body of the text.)

8. Magnani’s account of her feelings about this scene are revealing:

During the roundup, when I walked through the front door, suddenly I saw everything all over again, and I was taken back to the time when they took away the young men. Boys. Because these were real people standing against the walls. The Germans were real Germans from a P.O.W. camp. Suddenly, I wasn’t me any more. I was the character. And Rossellini had prepared the street in an incredible way. Do you know the women were white when they heard the Nazis talking among themselves? This made me understand the anxiety I projected on the screen. Terrible. Who would have expected an emotion like that? That’s how Rossellini worked. And, at least with me, let me say it again, the system worked (Faldini and Fofi, L’avventurosa storia , p. 95).

9. Leo Braudy, Focus on Shoot the Piano Player (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 4; Jean Desternes, Revue du cinéma, no. 3 (December 1946), p. 65.

10. Baldelli, Roberto Rossellini, p. 227. Giuseppe Ferrara has somewhat impressionistically described another technical aspect of the film—its lighting—which, while certainly conventional, is nevertheless accomplished with consummate skill, especially given the home-movie myth that encumbers most discussion of this film. Though the lighting is described by Amidei as thoroughly unexciting, Ferrara notes the complex thematic ways in which Rossellini uses it. For example, much of the film takes place in cramped interiors, outer darkness, or deep shadows, since this is where, according to Ferrara, “the human struggle itself takes place.” When we first see the “natural” figure of Pina early in the film, daylight enters the apartment to warm and highlight her features. The corrupt Marina, on the other hand, is seen only by means of harsh, bright, artificial lighting in one scene after another. In the gestapo headquarters of the Via Tasso, the light is dense and stagnant, symbolic of the sick and dying atmosphere it fills. At the film’s most hopeless moment—not the final murders, of course, because they in their own way speak of transcendence, but, rather, in the cell where Manfredi, the priest, and the Austrian deserter are kept—we can barely make out the figures or even the walls in the oppressive darkness. (Ferrara, Il nuovo cinema italiano, p. 111.)

11. Quoted in Lo splendore del vero: Quarant’anni di cinema di Roberto Rossellini, 1936-1976, ed. Giuliana Callegari and Nuccio Lodato (Pavia: Amministrazione provinciale, 1977), p. 42.

12. Armando Borrelli, Neorealismo e marxismo (Avellino: Edizioni di Cinemasud, 1966), pp. 81-84.

13. Mario Cannella, “Ideology and Aesthetic Hypotheses in the Criticism of Neo-Realism,” Screen, 13, no. 4 (Winter 1973-74), 22-23.

14. Mino Argentieri, “Storia e spiritualismo,” 37.

15. Baldelli,Roberto Rossellini, p. 49. Interestingly, the initial reaction of one of America’s greatest film reviewers, James Agee, was surprisingly like that of Baldelli. Writing in the April 13, 1946, issue of the Nation, Agee said that, while he was not sure, he thought that the coalition between the Church and the party depicted in Open City was not to be believed and that the Italians were “being sold something of a bill of goods.” His worry, perfectly in character for the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was that the common people could very easily be sold out for the benefit of the two institutions, at the expense of their own freedom.

16. Others have discussed the sexual subtext of this film from alternative points of view, but with unconvincing results. Thus, the historian Pierre Sorlin, for example, comparing Open City with Vergano’s The Sun Rises Again, finds a dark allegory of sexual punishment at work in the two films. Noting that a woman is also killed in Vergano’s film, he insists:

There is no narrative necessity for the two women to be shot. Look at them, lying on the ground: both are photographed from above, with the feet in foreground, the head in the background, the skirt tucked up, the thighs conspicuous. The shots were carefully arranged, and chance played no part in the exposure of two half-naked [sic!] women. In both films, Pina and Matelda were guilty of sexual transgression, Pina for being pregnant without being married, Matelda for having lovers. . . . The series of victims is well arranged, in ascending order: war-fighting-men have to die. Why is there a war? Because somewhere there is guilt. Offence: sex; punishment: the death of the “bad women.”

(Pierre Sorlin, The Film in History [London: Oxford University Press, 1980], pp. 201-2; quoted in BFI Dossier Number 8: Roberto Rossellini , (London: BFI, 1981), p. 10.) The editors of the British Film Institute dossier further compound Sorlin’s distortion in their simple-minded summary of the film from this point of view, when they insist, “In this set of equations underpinning the textual economy of Rome Open City , straight sex (heterosexuality) is punishable by death while homosexuality is associated with fascism. Under these circumstances, it appears almost logical that the only solution possible is catholicism and priesthood” (p. 10). Even were Sorlin’s terms granted, of course, Pina is being punished for sex before marriage, thus the neat reductio ad absurdum equation the editors offer neglects the alternative of “wholesome” sexuality in marriage.

17. Ben Lawton makes an interesting, if not altogether convincing, case in this direction, seeing the crippled boy leader of the band, Romoletto, as “little Rome,” and thus a founder of a new Rome, like Romulus. Only this time, he is crippled, both emotionally and physically (“Italian Neorealism: A Mirror Construction of Reality,” Film Criticism , 3, no. 2 [Winter 1979], 14).

18. Carlo Lizzani, Film d’oggi (November 3, 1945). It is certainly true that Lizzani expressed reservations about what he regarded as the amateurishness of the scenes in the gestapo headquarters, but it is a serious distortion to try to make out his review as negative, as some have.

19. Alberto Moravia, La nuova Europa (September 30, 1945), 8.

20. Alessandro Blasetti, Cinema italiano oggi (Rome: Carlo Bestetti, 1950), p. 48.

21. Mario Gromo, Film visti (Rome: Edizioni Bianco e Nero, 1957), p. 7.

22. Desternes review, Revue du cinéma , 66. Henri Agel will later say of Open City that it is here, where reality shows itself bloody and torn, that “we discover the secret meaning of things.” ( Le Cinéma a-t-il une âme? [Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1952], p. 50.)

23. Georges Sadoul, Les Lettres françaises (November 15, 1946). Making his own preference for realism very clear, he insists that he would give all of Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête for the single shot of the floating dead partisan in the opening of the last episode of Paisan .

24. John McCarten, New Yorker (March 2, 1946), 81.

25. Life (March 4, 1946), 111.

26. James Agee, Nation (March 23, 1946), 354.

27. Jurij Lotman, The Semiotics of Cinema (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1976), p. 67.

28. Lotman, p. 69. Georges Sadoul said something similar, using a different frame of reference, many years ago in connection with Paisan: “Rossellini’s method excluded neither research nor elaboration. Paisan was the most expensive Italian film made in 1946. Its poverty was only apparent, and it would be ridiculous to explain the birth of neorealism by the hardships that reigned in the country at that time. The distrust of beautiful ‘photography’ was in fact a supreme refinement, the creation of a new style, soon to be imitated everywhere” ( Histoire du cinéma mondial , p. 330).

29. Interview with Fereydoun Hoveyda and Jacques Rivette, Cahiers du cinéma , no. 94 (April 1959), 6.

30. André Bazin, What Is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), vol. 2, p. 27.

31. Ibid., p. 100.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid., p. 60.

34. Quoted in Linda Nochlin, Realism (New York: Penguin, 1971), p. 14. This kind of essentialist language is not limited to phenomenologists or Hegelians, of course. Thus, Giuseppe Ferrara considers the Po sequence of Paisan the peak of neorealism because: “Flaherty, Murnau, and Renoir, even though they had understood man and nature, are here leapt over with a single jump, in a savage aggression on the object, a vital incision into things, detailed to the limits of the bearable, when every mythology is broken apart and reality reveals itself to our eyes, which then penetrate it to its roots” (Ferrara, Il nuovo cinema italiano , p. 138).

35. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “What Is Phenomenology?” in European Literary Theory and Practice , ed. Vernon W. Gras (New York: Dell Publishing, 1973), p. 80.

36. Harold Brown, Perception, Theory, and Commitment (Chicago: Precedent Publishers, 1977), pp. 81-82.

37. Quoted in Realism and the Cinema , ed. Christopher Williams (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 177.

38. Lotman, p. 65.

39. Bazin, What Is Cinema? , vol. 2, p. 97.

40. Ibid., p. 101.

41. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 203.

42. Bazin, What Is Cinema? vol. 2, p. 27.

43. The overwhelming impression of reality in the film was such that Maria Michi reported being threatened with a knife because she collaborated with the Germans. In fact, one reads reports rather often of the same sort of basic confusion of realism and reality occurring in the minds of present-day, supposedly visually sophisticated, television viewers. One actress has even told the story of how she was watching herself on television one night. Her character was about to get out of the car, and an aggressor was waiting for her. Just at that moment the telephone rang; it was the actress’s cousin, calling to warn her not to get out of the car.

44. Pio Baldelli commits himself so thoroughly to a realist Rossellini that he complains peevishly about “unrealistic” elements that have been noticed, as far as I can determine, by no one else. Thus, he objects to the fact that the children could not realistically have been present at the priest’s execution, that the parents surely would not have let them out, that the soldiers surely would have seen the children or heard them whistling, and so on. (Baldelli, Roberto Rossellini , p. 38.)


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