The Infinite Pathways of God
There is no such thing as purity in cinema, and even the expressions we find most effective and audacious are compromised in a million little ways before we ever come close to seeing them. One change, in the casting or in budget or even in the weather, and the movie could be lost, or end up as an entirely different film.
Roberto Rossellini’s titanic Rome, Open City — which played recently in a stunning 4k restoration at the Gene Siskel Film Center — is almost always cited as the Year Zero of Italian neorealism. (Its next step, in a nice extension of the metaphor, would be his Germany: Year Zero.) But this masterpiece of cruelty, of the quotidian horrors of war, of people struggling to find normalcy under the most abnormal and intolerable conditions, did not start out as anything the critics would later come to term ‘realistic’. Even watching it in context today, there are hints of its origins: Rossellini wanted to tell something magnificent rather than personal in scope, no less than a full cinematic history of the Nazi occupation of his beloved Rome. Finances and circumstances didn’t allow that to happen, and so he wrote a smaller, more personal story. He wanted grand cinematic sweep and huge gestures of filmed magnificence, but he began production when the Nazis still controlled the city, and so he reduced the grandeur of Rome to empty city squares, banal offices lit up by the horrors of torture, once-great buildings reduced to rubble, and squalid apartments. He wanted an epic and settled for an indictment.
This is not to say that there are strong elements of what neorealism would become. For all the old, broad archetypes in the film, from the predatory lesbian turncoat played by Giovanna Galetti to the wispy, womanish Nazi officer played by Harry Feist, there is a new a different kind of focus. For one thing, and it is a thing that would make Rome, Open City an immortal film if it did nothing else, it is the movie that made a star out of Anna Magnani. Here she plays a working-class woman, earthy and salty, fantastically true and real, who has lost the father of her child to war and has had the bad luck to fall in love with another man who may not be around long — Francesco Grandjacquet, who dotes on the boy and dreams of being a good provider to the baby she has on the way, but who fights for the resistance, making him a clock whose hands are rapidly approaching midnight.
Grandjacquet is one of the film’s many amateur actors, drawn from the ordinary people of Rome; the choice was partly one of desperation but it proved to be the pattern that neorealism would follow to great success. There are a few other professional actors in the film, notably the theatrical Aldo Fabrizi as the kind local priest who aids the struggle against the Nazis because he feels that it his religious duty, and Marcello Pagliero, previously a lower-tier comic actor, showing incredible gravitas and professionalism as the engineer and Nazi-fighter Giorgio. Fabrizi’s Don Pellegrini is a figure of such moral heft and fundamental decency that he would be almost cartoonish if he were not based on a real Catholic priest, who also sacrificed everything for the sake of a divinely inspired moral rectitude that was sadly lacking for most of the war.
Another great step forward that Rome, Open City makes is to portray the resistance to fascism not only as — for all its moral righttness — greatly compromised, but also as, essentially, doomed. As clever, as careful, and as correct as Fabrizi, Pagliero, Magnani, and Grandjacquet are, they are nothing against the might and mastery of the Nazi machine. Their ultimate fates are shocking and tragic, but it cannot be said that they are unexpected. It is in this pervasive sense of dreadful fate against which even the most passionate natures cannot prevail that neorealism most influences noir. Also powerful is the fact that Fellini (and his writhers, Sergio Amidei, Alberto Consiglio, and the young Federico Fellini) stakes out an absolute moral position, but never truly condemns the people (like Magnani’s weaker sister, Laura, played by Carla Rovere, and her flighty collaborationist friend Marina, played by the gorgeous Maria Michi) who lack the resolve to live inside of it. His brilliance is to make the horrible consequences faced by those who find it in themselves to oppose fascism so dire as to render a failure to do so entirely understandable.
Beyond all that, of course, Open City is a visual masterpiece. Many directors, faced with the troubles Rossellini faced — a nearly nonexistent budget, limited equipment that had to be stolen or borrowed, the imposition of curfews, amateur collaborators, government interference, and literal risks to his life — would have given up. Instead, he turned those limitations into opportunities, and registered some of the most unforgettable images of the post-war period. The dark shadows of the hallways against the bright comfort of the torture chambers is unforgettable; and Pagliero, stalking the rooftops of Rome as the sun rises, is echoed in young Robert DeNiro’s loping across the New York skyline after killing a mobster in The Godfather Part II, and many other films. The movie’s final scene is as visually indelible as it is harrowing and persistent to the soul. (And, for all that, it somehow manages to be deeply human and often funny.)
Like Don Pellegrini’s God, Rome, Open City opened itself to infinite pathways. Great as it is, it could just have easily have been terrible, or worse yet, forgettable — and it very nearly didn’t exist at all. No miracle came to save Pellegrini, but a miraculous series of coincidences resulted in the completion and distribution of the film that showed his martyrdom, and which provided not only a blueprint for neorealism but also one of the most implacable and uncompromising statements about the waste and repugnance of war ever filmed. In the end, it is the Germans who understand Rome the best: one of the officers fails to understand the error of his inhuman underestimation of his fellow man, and one understands far too well.