Combining elements of documentary-style news footage with the tense, taut drama associated with the horrors of war, Roberto Rossellini managed to turn a neorealist mirror on the western world with his groundbreaking tale of resistance, repression and liberty. In many ways, Open City foreshadows the political power of the moving image. In fact, by the turbulent 1960s many world-class filmmakers, such as Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool), Costa-Gavras (Z), and Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon) were incorporating many of these same techniques in an effort to open the eyes and hearts of the American people.
Rossellini’s motivation and method were born of necessity. By 1944, there was virtually no film industry in Italy and no money to fund films. Rossellini had managed to cultivate a friendship with a wealthy elderly woman who wanted to finance a documentary on Don Pieto Morosini, a Catholic priest who had been shot by the Germans for assisting the growing partisan movement in Italy. Turns out this same woman had agreed to finance an another documentary about Roman children who had fought against the German occupiers. Federico Fellini, who had been working with Rossellini on developing a script, suggested that instead of two short documentaries, he should make one feature film combining both ideas.
So, in August of 1944, just two months after the Allies had forced the Nazis to evacuate Rome, work on this newly conceived project began. The devastation that was the result of the war surrounded them, inspired them and moved them forward. Once production was underway in Rome, Rossellini met a solider from the U.S. Signal Corps who was so impressed with Rossellini’s resolve and resourcefulness that he managed to obtain and deliver enough discarded film stock to finish the picture. Such are the commitments of conscience!
Although Roma citta aperta met with tepid response when it was first released in 1945, it has since gone on to become what we like to call a classic. More to the point, Open City should really be viewed as a ground-breaking achievement, in terms of moral courage, visual storytelling and the liberating political change which followed in its wake.