The Director: Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977)

Born in Rome 1906. Father was an architect who built cinemas. RR, a Catholic Christian Democrat, began his career in film in 1934 in an industry controlled by the fascist regime. Directs his first feature in 1940 and for rest of war works in official fascist film industry. Like Nazi Germany, fascist Italy used film to spread fascist ideology and maintain support for the regime. The Cine Città film studios were built in 1937 and were the largest in Europe. Mussolini took full control of film making in Italy in the 1930s. Established directors were forced (?) to make films supporting the regime, especially the war in Africa and in Europe. Most notable feature of fascist war films was the mindless heroism of the characters. Like other Italian directors, RR worked for regime making propaganda movies including 3 war movies: "La Nave Bianca" (1941) made in a documentary style about a wounded sailor on a hospital ship, propaganda about how state cares for the wounded and the efficiency of leadership; "A Pilot Returns" (1942) about the escape of an Italian pilot from a British POW camp; and "Man of the Cross" (1943) about the heroism of an army chaplain on the Russian front. All these films served the needs of the fascist government by praising uncritically the sailors, airmen, priests fighting for their country and showed the church as collaborating with it.

Mussolini deposed in July 1943 but installed in power agin with German support in September 1943 but only in north of Italy. Naples taken by allies in October 1944. Rome taken June 1944. Total surrender in May 1945. The last two years of the war were a disturbing time for directors like RR, who remarked on the turmoil of these years of occupation and disruption to their work:

"(it was) an extraordinary moment during the war when the invader arrived. We were dominated by the Germans, the Fascists, experiencing persecutions, and then, one fine day, the other arrived. Like enemies. Three days later they noticed that we were not enemies since we were men and their equals."

RR stayed in the south and helped establish the Cinema Worker's branch of the Committee of National Liberation. Italians at this confusing time were in a difficult situation. They were suspected by the Germans in the North for being hostile to Nazism and by the Allies in the south for being erstwhile collaborators. It took 2 years of fighting to remove the Nazis and Fascists from central and northern Italy. Some 250,000 men and women joined the partisans who fought a guerrilla campaign against the Germans. During this period RR was also shooting documentary footage of Italian resistance which was later used in "ROC" and "Paisà."

After the war directed films for Howard Hugh's RKO Pictures working with Ingrid Bergman (whom he eventually marries, and later divorces). During 1960s makes documentaries for French and Italian TV. Died June 1977. RR a leading figure in the rise of post-war Italian cinema. School of "neo-realism" which became enormously influential in film making for next 25 years. RR pioneered neorealist film with his trilogy about WW2: "ROC", "Paisà," "Germania: Anno zero." In this war trilogy RR traces the debilitating effects of the war and war's aftermath on the psyche of modern man. Concerned with the importance of the individual in the difficult circumstances of European society in the ashes of WW2. RR directed 2 more war films "Il generale della Povere" (1959) and "Night in Rome" (1960). RR sums up his quite religious philosophy:

"What matters to me is man. I have tried to express the soul, the light that shines inside people, their reality which is absolutely personal, unique reality, secured by an individual, with a sense of the things around them. These things have meaning since there is someone observing them."

The Film

One of the pioneering neorealist films of post-war European cinema which had great success with the public, possibly because of the way in which RR captures the experience of ordinary people in occupied Rome. Became the most popular neorealist film. Shot under very difficult even crude conditions. Used bits of left over film which RR could scrounge. This gives it an "authentic" ("real') appearance. Mimics the veracity and immediacy of news reels. RR also used on location shooting (actually war torn Rome near places where actual events of film took place), authentic language (i.e. dialect), and unglamorous non-professional actors with little or no make up (with the exception of Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi) to give the impression that one is viewing something as it actually happens. Thus, opposed to all the traditions of the "Hollywood" method of film making. Compare King Vidor's "Hollywood" version of "War and Peace." Filming began in 1944 a few weeks after the Germans had left Rome. The fascist film studios had been largely destroyed and so RR had to salvage equipment and use odd scraps of film stock. Film began as a short documentary on 19 January 1944, financed with donation of 10,000 pounds by a wealthy Roman contessa, to record the heorism of the priest Don Morosini who had been killed by the Germans for helping the resistance. Two of the actors used by RR (Sergio Amidei and Maria Michi who plays the prostitute Marina) had actual experience of fighting in the resistance. As film expanded the Contessa agreed to finance a second film about the role of children and youths in the resistance movement. Eventually the 2 films were merged into one.

Plot concerns a communist resistance leader Manfredi (based on an actual resistance leader Celeste Megarville) who is on the run from the Germans and takes refuge with Francesco. Manfredi's mistress is the prostitute Marina who is a drug adict. Francesco is engaged to Pina (played by Anna Magnani), who is already pregnant with his child, and who relies on the help of the priest Don Pietro (based on the real priest Morosini). Marina is persuaded (forced?) to betray Manfredi (and thus Francesco, Pina and Don Pietro) to the Gestsapo. Manfredi is tortured to death, Pina is shot, and Don Pietro executed by firing squad. One of RR's concerns is to show that few people are heroes by nature. Only the force of very difficult circumstances or stress brings out heroism in some individuals. RR's heroes are very mixed characters, neither pure heroes or pure villains but ordinary people trying to cope with the trials of occupation. RR links heroism and brutality with the presence or absence of faith and adherence to a moral code:

"In 'Rome: Open City' and 'Paisà', all the acts of heroism or human kindness obviosly spring from faith, and the brutalities of war from cynicism and absence of (a) moral code."

Things to Note

1. the view that Nazism is essentially corrupt - according the Christian Democrat RR it is politically, morally, sexually corrupt. Linkage to drugs and prostitution. RR's outrage is very clear. Painted in literally "black and white" terms.

2. Idea of heroism of ordinary people forced by circumstances to make difficult choices. The question so many Italians had to make was whether to fight/resist or collaborate with the occupying Germans. This was a problem for several European countries during and after WW2 (France, Holland, Italy).

3. Exploration of the nature of collaboration by both individual Italians and the Church. Dilemma faced by some anti-fascist priests who supported the resistance (such as Pietro/Morosini).

4. The nature of resistance. The role of the Communist Party (symbolised by Manfredi) and children in the resistance.

5. RR's view of women as prostitutes or sufferers/victims.

6. The use of humour. Don Pietro hits an old man with a skillet to keep him quiet. The sacristan crossing himself before joining a group of hungry people looting a bakery.

7. The execution of the Priest, Don Pietro. The Italians forced to be in firing squad aim low, coup de grâce administed by Nazi officer (compare with similar scene in Losey's "King and Country").

8. The optimism of the ending of the film. Rome is shown to be "the eternal city" afterall. Shot of dome of St. Peter's. RR's view that Rome will survive occupation of the Nazis and the corruption they introduced into Italian society. The whistling of the boys gives Don Pietro the courage to face the firing squad knowing that his struggle has not been in vain.