Rome Open City has an important place in the history of the cinema as the harbinger of Italian neo-realism, an honour which strictly should go to Visconti’s Ossessione made a year or so earlier. But while Ossessione is a gritty verismo melodrama, Rome Open City is a big film the subject of which is nothing less than the crucifixion of Rome – and Rome here stands for the whole nation. That means it is important as a religious film, although it never seems to get on those ’10 best faith film’ lists.
It should do. Here’s how I describe the climax of the film in THE NEW FILMGOER’S GUIDE TO GOD:
“Above all, the key relationship of the film is that between Manfredi and the priest Don Pietro. Manfredi is a communist, arrested in 1928 for conspiring against the state, and condemned to twelve years in prison. Having escaped, he rises to membership of the Committee for National Liberation. When this hard-line resister first meets Don Pietro, he sets aside any antipathy in favour of forging the necessary links at the human level. Don Pietro is no different, for when Bergmann [head of the gestapo in Rome] demands why he should consort with an atheist, he responds that both of them fight for justice and freedom, for ‘the ways of the Lord are infinite’. This conception of God is of one who can make sense of conflicting human activity.
The final sequences of the film bring this relationship into complete focus. After his arrest, Manfredi is tortured to make him divulge his resistance contacts but both ‘afraid and calm’ he says nothing, the clarity of his hatred giving him the strength not to betray. Bergmann forces Don Pietro to watch and at the close of the scene blurts at him: ‘Satisfied with your Christian charity?’ He then lifts Manfredi’s face up for Don Pietro, and us, to see: it is ravaged with blood and the marks of torture. Bergmann pronounces him ‘your brother in Christ’ as Pilate had pronounced ‘ecce homo/behold the man’ in John (19:5). Manfredi is dead, and Don Pietro says, ‘It is finished’, Jesus’ last words on the cross in John (19:20). During Manfredi’s torture his arms are pinned to the wall above his head like the crucified Jesus, and it has been suggested by David Forgacs that Rossellini has in mind a painting of the crucifixion by Renato Guttuso of 1940-1, in which the three crosses on Calvary are surrounded by distraught women and indifferent men, all naked, while in the foreground are the instruments of the Passion: knife, nails, vinegar. The presence of horses suggests the influence of Picasso’s Guernica of 1937 on Guttuso, and both paintings order the horror of war in an expressive new way. In echoing the painting, Rossellini uses the chief tool of cinema, the supposedly objective camera, to order and direct in a similarly expressive way how the viewer should interpret the banal facts of suffering.
For the final sequence, he resorts to the prosaic: Don Pietro is taken to some open ground at the Forte Bravetta, tied in a chair and shot by firing squad. To the priest accompanying him he comments, ‘It is easy to die; the difficulty is to live decently.’ Rossellini deliberately films his dignified death in a matter-of-fact way. It is the torture sequence in the Gestapo HQ that he dramatizes, and the Crucifixion is reserved for the atheist Manfredi, his death being made a symbol for the murder of justice and freedom.”