Well, I quite liked this one.
Made on the shoestringest of budgets and the slimmest of circumstances, Rome, Open City is a look at Italian life under Nazi control and the resistance within. We jump right into things with Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), a leader of the Italian resistance, scrambling out his window and fleeing across the rooftops as German soldiers search his apartment. Manfredi heads for the home of Francisco, another resistance member, where he’s met by Pina (Anna Magnani), Francisco’s pregnant fiancée. Pina all but throws him out, suspecting he’s a cop – but when Manfredi explains his predicament, Pina changes her tune, chattily talking about her upcoming wedding. She is fortunately in touch with Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), the local priest – he’s the one performing the service. But Don Pietro also happens to be in the resistance, so when he stops by later that night, Manfredi urges him to meet a colleague and deliver some messages for him.
The Gestapo aren’t the only ones looking for Manfredi, though. Marina (Maria Michi), a cabaret singer and occasional call girl, has been having a bit of a dalliance with Manfredi, and keeps calling around Rome looking for him. Marina also occasionally sells the Gestapo some low-level secrets about the Resistance in exchange for extra cash or for opium. Pina’s sister Laura (Carla Rovere) is another call girl and is friendly with Marina, so when she lets slip that Manfredi is hiding at Pina’s place, Marina is jealous enough to tip off the Gestapo, prompting a raid on Pina and Francisco’s building the morning of the wedding.
Everyone in the building springs into action – Dom Pietro first smuggles the men out through the basement, then heads up to the roof to where the local kids have been making improvised explosives; all while the women drag their feet and harangue the Gestapo as their herded out, making as much fuss as possible as a distraction. Dom Pietro is able to hide the bombs with the help of Pina’s boy Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), but tragically, some Gestapo catch some of the escaping men – including Francisco, whom they drag out past a screaming Pina and fling into a truck. Pina makes a desperate chase after the departing truck and is shot while Francisco’s watches helplessly.
The Resistance is fortunately able to spring Francisco, but soon suffers another blow as both Manfredi and Don Pietro are captured, thanks to another tipoff from Marina. The guilty Marina begs them to go easy on Manfredi, but the Gestapo have quite another opinion on the matter, and spend a desperate night cruelly torturing Manfredi – and making Don Pietro watch – determined to make one or the other speak before daybreak, or die.
So it’s a bit of a melodrama, yeah. But there’s a freshness and frankness to Rosselini’s style that made this fascinating instead of overwrought. It may have been born of necessity; Rosselini was filming in the waning days of World War II, casting mostly amateur actors and using three completely different kinds of film stock scavenged from the black market and discards from the U. S. Army’s Signal Corps supply. But sometimes having to scrounge and make do leads you to make especially creative choices, and sometimes taking away the extra trappings lets your actors shine.
And Anna Magnani especially shines here. Her Pina is only in a handful of scenes, but I was drawn to her immediately; she’s a fierce mother-hen type, ready to fight Manfredi off when she first meets him but then insisting he have a cup of coffee when she learns he’s a friend. But she also has her quiet moments, enjoying a heart-to-heart with Francisco on the eve of their wedding or unburdening herself to Dom Pietro.
Rosselini also makes room for some little moments of humor as well – in a scene where Dom Pietro is fetching something from a sculptor’s, he’s momentarily left alone in a room with a small statue of Venus, and after uncomfortably eyeing it for a moment, he turns it to face away from him. Another early scene sees the boy Marcello returning from a bit of anti-Nazi kid mischief with the other boys in his building – but they’re coming home after curfew, so as each boy is met by a set of incensed parents Marcello gets more and more worried until by the time he reaches his own door he’s drafted another boy to serve as escort to run interference. Standing up to Nazis is one thing – but standing up to Mom Pina? Forget it.
The earlier Ossessione was probably the earliest example of the “Italian neorealist” style, but this film is what really put it on the map for viewers.