ROME OPEN CITY (Roma città aperta)

Remember those old movies? The ones where a couple drives down the road, only they aren’t driving, they’re sitting in a car on some studio lot. And that’s not a road behind them; it’s a rear projection of road. Looks fake, doesn’t it?

Did this fakery bother audiences back then? Not in the slightest. Back in the 1920s, ’30s, and even into the ’40s, movies were about beautiful people living in fabulous mid-city apartments, dressing glamorously, saying the right thing at the right time, and always finding a parking space. Movies were not reality; they were dream machines. And everyone seemed pretty happy with that. That was until World War II came along.

Not only did World War II change the way people saw the world, but it changed their desire to understand it. The filmmakers who witnessed these horrors were suddenly filled with a new urgency, one that found Italy as Ground Zero to what would become one of the most impactful movements in all of cinema, Italian neo-realism.

But before there could be a movement, a maestro was needed, and the Roman-born Roberto Rossellini heeded the call. The writer/director had been dabbling in cinema since the late ’30s, but it wasn’t until his 1945 movie, Rome Open City, that the game changed.

When Rossellini started working on the script for Rome Open City, his plan was to focus mainly on the plight of a priest during wartime. As he continued to write, Rossellini opened the story up to incorporate an entire city suffering under the occupation of fascists. The priest (Aldo Fabrizi) remained the moral center, but the addition of a widowed single mother (Anna Magnani), a resistance fighter (Marcello Pagliero), and a collaborator (Maria Michi) painted a picture of the Roman middle class and the sheer exasperation of their predicament.

To bring his images to life, Rossellini filmed in hallways and hotels, brought his camera out into the streets, and photographed his actors against the rubble, placing the leads in scenarios populated by non-actors, effectively blurring the lines of what was cinema and what was reality.

Yet, it is not just the documentary aspect of Rome Open City that made it a shock then and a legacy now. It was how seamlessly Rossellini blended realism with melodrama, giving the audience just enough to emotionally latch on to before ripping it all away.

While Rossellini was making Rome Open City he considered calling it A Story of Yesterday. That would have been an accurate title, but even though Rossellini works with history, he does not set his movie in history. Rome Open City is not about what happened, but about what is happening. A trick that makes the movie every bit as relevant and urgent today as it was 70 years ago. No easy feat, but then again, changing the face of cinema isn’t something that is done lightly. Available on Blu-ray as part of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy from The Criterion Collection.

A version of this review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 36, “Changing the face of cinema.”