Grading Historical Movies: Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome Open City”

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The first film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 neorealist classic, “Rome Open City.”

Overall grade from 45 students: B+

Review One:

By Paige Ross

Rome, Open City illustrates the multi-faceted struggle of Italian citizens living under the oppressive occupation of Nazi forces following the ousting of Mussolini and the declaration of Rome as an “open city.” The film gives insight into the mindset and motivations of those in the Italian resistance and renders an image of a “full” resistance by Italian citizens which includes every kind/type of person in Italian society, from the clergy to the children. Additionally, Rome, Open City poignantly illustrates the human consequences of war. These consequences can be seen throughout the film in instances such as Pina’s senseless death, Giorgio’s death as a result of brutal torture, and Don Pietro’s death at the hands of a firing squad. Death is a strategic motif utilized throughout the film to further demonstrate the overreaching struggle of everyday Italians and the theme that war is a brutal enterprise with permanent consequences. Rome, Open City also displays the intersection of war and faith, hope and hopelessness, love and hatred. Throughout the film the characters (both major and minor) are forced to grapple with morality and mortality, as well as self-perseverance, and this plays a significant role in the plot and the character development as well as further stresses that war is a human conflict, and that humans cannot be entirely good or entirely evil. This instance is most pointedly illustrated in one of the last scenes of the film in which Captain Hartmann drunkenly admits to the mass wrongdoing committed by his side (the Nazis).

However, while Rome, Open City does an exceptional job of illustrating the human consequences of war and conflict, it struggles with some elements of pacing (nearly all the action occurs in the final half hour) as well as has issues creating deep or meaningful bonds between the audience and its characters. Every character was developed seemingly “at surface level,” as the director sought to represent multiple factions of Italian society at the time. Any alliance the audience has to any specific character is loose for the majority of the film, and I myself struggled to feel some of the characters’ pain/struggle/suffering until the latter portion of the film. This I believe hindered some of my ability to connect emotionally to the past conveyed in Rome, Open City, however this did not in my opinion, hinder the overall depiction of the past and the experiences of the Italian citizens under Nazi rule as illustrated in the film. Lastly, I believe that the fact that the film was released in 1945 so soon after the conclusion of the Second World War provides some additional validity or “truth” to the experiences and emotions conveyed throughout the film.

Review Two

By Madeline Phaby

Rome, Open City provides unique insight into the struggles and fear-inducing episodes endured by Italians during the World War II Nazi occupation of Rome. The film is largely told from the point of view of the Italian citizens who suffered both economically and physically at the hands of the Germans and as a consequence of the brutal war. The main focus is placed on Giorgio Manfredi, an engineer who is a part of the communist resistance, Pina and Francesco, fiancees who are also part of the resistance, and Don Pietro, a priest who aids the resistance as well and frequently shows animosity towards the Nazis despite being a man of God. The fact that Rossellini decides to tell the story of the war from the perspective of these poor, ordinary citizens allows the viewer to become more engrossed in the plot since we are more likely to relate to an “everyman” fighting for a working-class movement such as Giorgio than some Italian bureaucrat who was likely not nearly as crippled by the war as lower-class individuals. The film also provides a whirlwind of emotions for the viewer – anger at the ruthlessness of the SS and Major Bergmann in particular, fright as the pursuit of Manfredi by the Germans intensifies, and sorrow upon Pina’s shocking and passionate death – which serve as further evidence of Rossellini’s skill in creating a heartfelt connection between us and the hopeless but persistent revolutionaries. The way I see it, if a film doesn’t make one feel precisely the same emotions expressed by its characters, then the director hasn’t done his job.

Although Rome, Open City is a tale of betrayal, tragedy, and thwarted spirit, it also serves as a passionate display of human perseverance. Unfortunately, we have learned time and time again that few revolutions are carried out without bloodshed, and the communist rebellion depicted in the film is no exception. However, the last part of the film during which Manfredi and Don Pietro both refuse to betray their cause and thus weaken the German morale is nothing short of triumphant and, in essence, what resistance is all about. Yes, it’s sad that everyone ends up dying, but the result of the men’s steadfastness is satisfying nonetheless.

Review Three

By Emma Darby

Rome, Open City was a fascinating and deeply disturbing account of the lives controlled within German-dominated Rome. The many religious undertones throughout the film, highlighted by Don Pietro and Pina’s questioning of God’s mercy caused by the continual beratement and attacks by the Germans, all the more powerful. The juxtaposition between the residents and the German troops were also quite striking, seeing the depravity and isolation that the Italians experienced compared to the luxury and poshness the Germans were able to create, especially the fur coat for Marina.  This juxtaposition continued through the relationships that were displayed throughout the film.  Marina and Giorgio, for example, have a tainted relationship because of her stronger desire for wealth and luxury provided by the dominating forces in exchange for information.  Pina and Francesco, on the other hand, find safety and trust in each other, the German invitation for prosperity not within their desires. It also offers a slight relief from the overall dark film. The characterization of Pina, as well as the children, were highly interesting in their displays to Fascist expectations. Pina fought for power and visibility in the world rather than just remaining a childbearing utility. The children showed a great deal of courage in fighting, which fascism dictated boys should do, but they fought against the government above them.

Though the characters were fictionalized, the plot itself was quite believable. Rossellini made very clear and careful choices in how his characters were displayed, the Germans all much taller and in dark clothing throughout the film, their presence as dread-inducing as the threat of a world take over. The choice to also have Pina, a face of the resistance, shot dead in the street, followed by two sheep being killed in a similar manner highlight the villainy Rossellini was trying to capture. What was most alarming was definitely the death of Don Pietro.  Metaphorically, it stood out as a silencing of God’s word, or killing a figure of God himself, crushing the spirits and hopes of the children also in the Resistance.  Through these choices, the story itself became not only the more heartbreaking, but helped one understand the complete lack of hope those being occupied may have felt during the war.

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