Short, stocky, and stoic, Father Pietro Pellegrini smiles rarely and laughs even less. His face fixed into an almost permanent glower, he busies himself taking care of his flock. He accepts indignity with an impassive grace, ignoring the laughs of schoolchildren when they smack him in the head with a soccer ball. Here is a man who, blushing, takes the time to rearrange figurines in a store so that a saint won’t be staring at a female nude. When asked whether or not God sees the people of Italy in their suffering under the tyranny of Nazi Occupation, he responds, “Are we sure we haven’t deserved this scourge? Are we sure we’ve always lived according to the Lord’s laws?” And yet, from his lips this answer does not seem like a stock response drilled into priests and monks for the purpose of quickly quelling difficult theological questions. No, from Father Pietro Pellegrini this answer exudes the weariness of a man of God who has been tested and tested and tested and yet has found no relief for the burdens of his heart and soul. Perhaps it is this honest portrayal of a man of God at war with himself that makes him such an effective moral center of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. One of the first great films of the post-war Italian Neorealist Movement, Rome, Open City sought to find meaning and purpose in the carnage and struggle of a society reeling from years of Fascist dictatorship and wartime destruction.
The story of the film’s production is almost as miraculous as the film itself. Beginning production almost immediately after the Allies kicked the Nazis out of Italy, Rossellini found himself having to make a film materialize almost out of thin air. The major movie studios had been destroyed, so he had to film it on the bombed out streets of Rome. Raw film was in such short supply that he had to purchase extra from street photographers and frankenstein bits and pieces of different types (and qualities) of film stock together. Only a few professional actors could be cast, forcing him to largely rely on non-actors for most roles.
Actors were available for the three main roles around which the film revolves. Anna Magnani, that great titan of Italian cinema, gave a career-defining performance as Pina, the pregnant fiancée of a Resistance fighter who finds comfort in her faith in God despite the hellish conditions she lives in. She is the most apolitical protagonist in the film, more concerned with the future of her child and upcoming marriage than matters of government and resistance. Marcello Pagliero played Giorgio Manfredi, a Communist Resistance fighter on the run from the Gestapo. His is the role of the secular intellectual; the youthful Freedom Fighter. And finally, Aldo Fabrizi steals the show as Father Pietro Pellegrini. Based on the real life partisan and priest Giuseppe Morosini, Pellegrini is also a member of the Resistance. And like his real-life counterpart, he is doomed for martyrdom.
Together these three characters weave a story of resistance against Nazism. The film shrewdly positions these characters to redeem different elements of Italian society in the wake of two tyrannical governments. Pina represents the victimized masses ground down under the boot-heel of Fascism, Giorgio the politically active revolutionaries, and Pellegrini that most ubiquitous of Italian institutions, the Church. Their resistance and inevitable destruction unites these disparate groups of people into a cohesive whole; a distinct, overlapping Italian identity forged to combat the forces of evil. Of course, this politely ignores the fact that it was members of the passive proletariat like Pina who so enthusiastically embraced Mussolini in the first place; that it was from revolutionary groups like the one operated by Giorgio from which Il Duce sprang; that it was priests like Pellegrini who helped legitimize his Fascist rule after the Church was given the proper lip service as an integral part of Italian culture.
But despite this, Rome, Open City was a story desperately needed by not only the Italians, but by all of post-war Europe. As one of the first Italian Neorealist films, it helped establish the trend of a European cinema which rejected escapism in favor of stark authenticity and the confrontation of serious societal ills. In addition to Rossellini’s own Paisan (1946) and Germany, Year Zero (1948), other Italian directors like Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini (who worked on the screenplay for Rome, Open City) would pick up the hue and cry of Neorealism, permanently changing the face of world cinema with films like Bicycle Thieves (1948) and I Vitelloni (1953).
Rossellini himself would diligently make films for the next three decades, including a trilogy of existential dramas with Ingrid Bergman in the 1950s, a number of biographies in the 1960s, and a string of historical made-for-television dramas in the 1970s. But buried beneath all of these vastly differing films, an earnest, powerful morality vibrated and thrummed. Despite not being a believer, Rossellini was fascinated by the Catholic Church and its teachings. The best known manifestation of this interest was his 1950 film The Flowers of St. Francis, a beautiful drama on the life of St. Francis. But as early as Rome, Open City, Rossellini’s belief that the message and ethics of the Church, not necessarily the Church itself, were vital and necessary for modern society was on display. I have said little about the plot of this film. But I will mention this one scene near the end.
After being captured by the Gestapo, Giorgio and Pellegrini are tortured for information about the whereabouts of other Resistance Movements. The head interrogator tries to sway Pellegrini to help them by demonizing Giorgio as an enemy of the Church. Pellegrini’s answer is not only one of the emotional climaxes of the film, but it stands as one of the greatest moments of cinematic morality ever captured. In this moment, you can feel the whole of Italy begin to heal itself.
Gestapo Agent: “You’d have me believe that you don’t know what he really does, who he really is?”
Pellegrini: “I only know he’s a man in need of my modest help.”
Gestapo Agent: “Really? Then I’ll tell you who he is. He’s a subversive, an atheist – your enemy!”
Pellegrini: “I am a Catholic priest. I believe that anyone fighting for justice and liberty walks in the ways of the Lord, and the ways of the Lord are infinite.”