During the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1944, the Resistance leader, Giorgio Manfredi, is chased by the Nazis as he seeks refuge and a way to escape.
“Roma città aperta is one of the great breakthroughs of neorealism in post-war Italy. A breakthrough of what? For twenty-five years, there was fascist ossification and inbreeding, the heyday of a couple of genres that provided an utterly distorted picture of reality, or rather, that regarded the very dialogue with reality as superfluous. In a grandiose gesture of liberation, these self-sufficient diagrams of comedies and dramas are dismissed. Suddenly, reality itself becomes visible.”
“For [the screenwriter Sergio] Amidei the truth meant a film which would show the evilness and corruption of the Nazis (Fascism was scarcely alluded to), the goodness and heroism of the Roman people, how much those people had suffered on behalf of right and justice, and how the triumph of the people was inevitable. Every incident and every person thus had some correspondence with actual incidents and people, but thus also melodrama was at the core of Amidei’s conflict of good against evil. His characters were stereotyped—the good fatso priest who’s always good; the hero who’s always heroic; the sadistic Nazi who’s always bad; the lesbian drug-addict who sinks to perfidy and causes the hero’s tragedy; the innocent mother who suffers and dies; the orphaned child. Evil on one side was as concentrated as good on the other: torturers, sexual “perverts,” drug addicts, drunkards, betrayers, and shadowy interiors versus mothers, children, freedom fighters, a priest, and sunshine. Pitted against stereotypes of eternal damnation were stereotypes of nationalism, Christianity, solidarity, populism, morality and existentialism. But revolutionary art is always this way, and revolutionary art was what Amidei intended: a movie that would articulate the experiences and dreams of the masses, a movie that would proclaim the truth of the revolution. The conventions Amidei was manipulating, moreover, were, despite hundreds of years of wear, still vital in theaterical revues and commedia dell’arte. Both vaudeville and the commedia staged fables using stock characters wearing masks as an outline for improvisation on themes of current interest. In Amidei’s film, as directed by Rossellini, the shock of that improvisation would be overpowering: the emotion-charged actuality to which the old conventions were wedded; the offhandedness with which human failings were depicted in an age when “good taste” censored everything; and above all the experience of moral redemption through suffering. So overpowering, that few would notice the melodramatic structure.
The shock was an outcome of conflict between Amidei and Rossellini. Roberto’s intentions were quite different. In making Roma città aperta he was no more a Communist than in making L’uomo dalla croce he had been a Fascist. He was not politically motivated, he was not interested in revolutionary popularism, he did not want to push people toward some new ideology (Communism) to replace an old ideology (Fascism). Instead he wanted to explore the past, to relive it, to understand it. He wanted to come to terms with the fear he had experienced. “I could have made Roma città aperta like propaganda, against everything,” he later explained. “I tried not to. I tried to explore and understand, because I had the feeling that we were all responsible for what happened, all of us. Now, how to solve that problem?”
“I posed myself two goals: One, the moral position: to look without mystifying, to try to make a portrait of us, of us then, as honestly as possible. [It was] didactic, precisely because the effort I made was to achieve understanding of events in which I had been immersed, by which I had been shaken. It was the exploration not only of historic facts, but really of attitudes, of behavior that that certain atmosphere, that that certain historical situation had determined. The other goal was to break the industrial structures of those years, to be able to conquer the liberty to experiment without conditions. Once those two goals are achieved, you find the problem of style already resolved, automatically. When you give up pretending, manipulating, you already have an image, a language, a style. When, to kill the industrial structures of cinema, you leave the sound stage and shoot on the street like someone who lives and belongs there, you discover as a result that you possess a style. The language, the style of neo-realism are here: it’s the result of a moral position, of looking critically at the obvious.”
“You look at the opening sequence of Ladri di biciclette (1948) or Roma città aperta (1945) and you can see all of these things. The dialogue, the discussions, the critique, it is all there. The fact that it is presented doesn’t mean that everything is accepted. There’s a sort of analytic power at work which is open to the very messy, protean possibilities of the real. Some of my favourite stuff is from television of the 1960s: you watch it and there’s just this obsession with the insignificant. Now everything means something. It’s so tame, everything is ‘meaningful’. It’s that disenchantment with the real that I’m talking about, with it’s subversive, protean possibilities.”
“Roma città aperta is een van de grote momenten van doorbraak van het neorealisme in het naoorlogse Italië. Doorbraak van wat? Vijfentwintig jaar lang was er fascistische verstarring en inteelt, hoogtij van enkele genres die een volledig vertekend beeld gaven van de werkelijkheid, of beter nog, die juist elke dialoog met de werkelijkheid overbodig achtten. Deze volledig zelfstandig geworden schema’s van komedies en drama’s worden in een grandioos gebaar van bevrijding weggeschoven. Plots is het de werkelijkheid zelf die zichtbaar wordt.”
“Rond de Stunde Null is er iets veranderd in de cinema. Het nieuwe realisme was geen beter realisme omdat het, afgemeten aan wat eraan voorafging, de afstand tussen realiteit en kunst zo spectaculair verkleinde. De handeling van Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta en Germania anno zero trekt aan alle gekende touwtjes van de verhalende cinema. Ook hun hedendaagse verhaallijnen lopen achter op hun tijd. Het schijnbaar openhartige slot van Paisà, de koude zinloosheid van de oorlog die alle individuele inspanningen opslokt, wordt iets minder zinloos wanneer we bedenken dat het fascisme intussen verslagen was, dat de chaos bijna terug in evenwicht was toen Rossellini de film draaide. De film wendt de mislukking voor. Of juister: speelt de mislukking na.”
- 1. Dirk Lauwaert, “Finally Rossellini,” translated by Sis Matthé, Sabzian, 8 April 2010. Originally published in Universitas, 4 (1969).
- 2. Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini (Paris: Hachette Books, 1998).
- 3. Stoffel Debuysere, “Between the Fire and the Voice. A Conversation with John Akomfrah,” Sabzian, 17 September 2014.
- 4. Dirk Lauwaert, “Eindelijk Rossellini,” Universitas, 4 (1969). Opnieuw gepubliceerd op Sabzian, 2 januari 2015.
- 5. Frieda Grafe, “Realisme is altijd neo-, sur-, super-, hyper-. Zien met fotografische apparaten,” Sabzian, 29 januari 2020. Origineel gepubliceerd als ‘Realismus ist immer Neo-, Sur-, Super-, Hyper-. Sehen mit fotografischen Apparaten’ in Süddeutsche Zeitung, München, jrg. 35, nr. 10, 13/14 januari 1979, p. 139.