I’d been putting off watching the copy of Rome, Open City (aka Roma, Città Aperta) (1945) I’d picked up in a charity shop a few weeks ago, assuming that it would be a rather grim grind to sit through… but, once again, war-time “neo-realist” cinema proved to be far more amusing and engaging than certain modern “comedies” I could mention! For those who don’t know, this film went into production mere months after the Allies had forced the Germans to evacuate Rome, and was shot on whatever scraps of film-stock director Roberto Rossellini could scrabble together. Considering the circumstances, it’s amazing that they managed to produce a film at all, let alone one that tells such a powerful story… so it’s easy to forgive how crappy the actual print looks from time to time! Apparently an American company called Criterion have released a fancy new digitally-restored edition for the stateside market, but the version I watched was a French edition, with no extra features and spotty subtitles. Pesky.
The story concerns a fugitive named ‘Giorgio’, who we first meet scampering across rooftops to escape the German soldiers, before he winds up on the doorstep of his friend, ‘Francesco’. He’s welcomed by Francesco’s pregnant fiancée, ‘Pina’, who is carrying a bag full of bread that she’d “liberated” from a nearby bakery, during a rather cheery ration-busting riot (which she may, or may not, have instigated). Giorgio and Francesco are big wheels in the local resistance movement, along with a priest named ‘Don Pietro Pellegrini’, and they soon get down to the business of sneaking money out of the city to their comrades. Meanwhile, Pina’s self-absorbed sister ‘Paulette’ is hanging out with Giorgio’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, ‘Marina’, a rather avaricious actress who is secretly colluding with the SS. Of course, as soon as Pina starts chatting with Giorgio about her upcoming marriage to Francesco, and how happy they’ll be together, it’s pretty obvious that things are going to take a turn for the tragic… and the second half of the flick does get quite gory, as various characters are captured and tortured for information, before their eventual execution.
Obviously I’m no expert on the Italian resistance movement at the time, and I don’t intend to let my personal politics blind me to this film’s many fine qualities… but, again, I am a little disappointed by the “of its time” sexism evident here. Pina’s young son belongs to a gang of juvenile saboteurs who like to sneak out at night and blow up German supply trucks, but when his cousin asks why she can’t join them, he simply replies “women are trouble”… and that seems to be a prejudice that the filmmakers share. Of the four major female characters presented here, only Pina could really be classified as a “goodie”, and she gets offed pretty early on, after letting her emotions get the better of her. By stark contrast, Paulette is a foolish flibbertigibbet, who doesn’t even seem to notice there’s a war on… Marina is a promiscuous junkie and a collaborator, who sells out her ex-lover for a fur coat… and her handler ‘Ingrid’ is a sapphic sadist, who gets young women hooked on drugs so she can use them as spies and playthings, then dispose of them once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the male characters are noble, serious, stoic, self-sacrificing heroes! Seems a tad uneven to me.
Still, there are a lot of great performances to enjoy here. Anna Magnani, who plays Pina, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a Sicilian widow in The Rose Tattoo… a role which Tennessee Williams wrote specifically for her. Shame her character here is so short-lived, because she’s a very strong and sympathetic figure (and, yes, I do realise that adds to the poignancy of her death, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still feel a little cheated). Maria Michi was a little too melodramatic for my tastes as the duplicitous Marina, but then she is playing an emotionally unstable stage-actress, so that may have been an intentional character choice. One of the things that most surprised me about this film (besides the jokes) was how risqué some of the scenes were… I tend to think of old-timey cinema as very staid and proper, but when Lauretta goes to visit Marina in her dressing room, they’re both wearing flimsy low-cut tops, which threaten to slip off their shoulders every time they move! I thought Carla Rovere was very cute, and a lot of fun in the role of Paulette, but apparently she only appeared in two other films (made shortly after this one), and then retired from acting altogether. Shame. At least she knows well enough to scatter when Giovanna Galletti slinks her way into the room as Ingrid, smouldering with an intense, oppressive sensuality. As far as I can tell from running Galletti’s Italian Wikipedia page through a translator, she had a solid career as an actress, both on screen and stage, but the only other title I actually recognised on her resume was Last Tango in Paris (which, oddly enough, also featured Michi).