London just witnessed the release of a newly restored version of Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta).
Roberto Rossellini’s Italian Neo-Realist classic emerged from the smashed debris of what was left of the Eternal City as the German armies retreated and the Allies slowly crept towards it.
Watching the movie today it lacks none of its emotional punch, not least because of the almost documentary feel of what is being viewed. The pacing and use of hand-held cameras, to say nothing of the city itself as character, all make for something that in many ways hardly seems dated. That said, filmed at the start of 1945, it was very much of its time for those crew and actors taking part, only too aware that the Nazis had left Rome a mere six months earlier.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The plot involves a number of parties all caught up in the then ongoing Nazi occupation of Rome and the resistance to it. The film skillfully weaves these lives together with two central characters who stand apart until the very end: the SS commandant, Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), and a local priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi). These men are the poles around which the other character’s lives and philosophies move and ultimately collide.
Bergmann: effete and haughty, imperious and ruthless, a cold Nazi ideologue to be feared – by comrade and enemy alike. His face is a permanent scowl as if cruelty were the only sentiment worth knowing; his inhumanity as stiff as the immaculate uniform he wears. Tellingly, his office has two exits: one to a bordello for drunken, depressed SS Officers and the other to a torture chamber. For him, oscillating between these, it is permanently night.
In contrast, Don Pietro is first seen in the heat of a Roman street trying to referee a soccer match for children. It is good-natured chaos with the priest in his battered cassock in the middle of it. The contrast with the fussy somberness of the SS could not be more pronounced. It is not just dress that sets the two men apart, however. The priest is pious, humble, wise and compassionate. Whether it is discussing Confession with a pregnant woman about to get married, the fate of an orphan, or even existential questions around suffering—he is there for all, first and foremost a pastor. Throughout the movie, we see him tirelessly on the move through the city and indeed the lives of those around him, his calm disposition a visible counterbalance to the agitation and fear that predominate everywhere.
And yet, this is no convenient ‘priest’ for movie consumption, essentially a secular social worker in disguise. No, this is a man of real faith something witnessed from the start. Called away from the soccer match by a young messenger, they pass through the parish church and the priest stops to make a full genuflection, as does his young companion, before solemnly leaving the church together. Later in the movie, this is repeated with the unmarried mother. Later again, we see him intoning the Litany of Loreto on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament after a particularly brutal slaying by the Nazis. That scene’s juxtaposition is interesting, coming as it does prior to one consisting of the hollow, if materially comfortable, lot of a female Italian collaborator who has sold herself to, and for, the pleasures of this world, and now, like her SS masters, never smiles. Two scenes: one forlorn and listless depicting material luxury, the other with no worldly comforts to speak of yet filled with peace in the very teeth of adversity—the message is clear.
One suspects that, with his concern for the poor and abandoned, his piety and ready recourse to prayer in all situations coupled with his reaching out even to those who oppress and harm, this would be exactly the type of priest of whom Pope Francis would approve of. Don Pietro’s shoes are definitely covered in the dust of the streets.
Eventually, the climax comes when the two protagonists meet.
One is captor, the other captive. Those with whom the priest is arrested form part of the Resistance. One kills himself unable to control his fear of the torture he is about to undergo. The other is taken for interrogation and through the door we glimpse the instruments of torture being prepared—enough to make one shudder. When we see them used, it becomes almost unbearable. Don Pietro is forced to watch this sadism whilst commanded to make the man betray others in the Resistance. Instead, the priest chooses to pray for all those concerned. Incomprehensible to his captors, here is a man who not only rejects the Nazi ideology but also appears unafraid to do so. Bergmann, the SS Major, is beside himself, all too aware that, without fear, his Empire of the Night shatters. In the end, the torture kills its victim, and Bergmann is left with nothing but his Pyrrhic victory accompanied by the recitation of the Prayers for the Dead…
This encounter between Bergmann and Don Pietro is shorn of any melodrama—it is simply a confrontation between good and evil. Nevertheless, it is of especial interest for contemporary audiences given that this battle for hearts and minds and thus ultimately souls is one played out between a poor city priest and a neo-pagan hierarchy decked out in all its macabre tinsel. The priest’s peaceful face is memorable because it is in marked counterpoise to the haunted look of the Nazis, whose dead eyes like gaping holes revealing nothing but the emptiness of Hell itself.
The lack of sentimentality throughout is refreshing, especially so, when one recalls that as this was being filmed in Italy, Bing Crosby was being lauded in Hollywood as a singing priest. This is a long way from Going My Way. Whereas that movie now appears to have little relevance for today’s Catholic, Rome, Open City does.
It is fitting therefore that it should be on our screens again at this time.
For here are two ideologies at war: a Culture of Death and a Civilization of Love. One with all the trappings of worldly power believes that might is always right and that some are born to be nothing more than a “slave race”; the other totally rejects this and sees through the veil of earthly reality to the supernatural truth that transcends it. One despises humanity and “kills and kills and kills”—as one despairing SS Officer laments; the other continues to welcome life. And yet history is witness to the victor in what was an altogether real battle between the Church and mid-twentieth century neo-barbarianism. This is not wholly surprising, however, for as Chesterton had noted earlier, to her enemies the Church, time and again, may appear to “die,” but just as they think she has finally succumbed, the Church comes to life once more, even stronger than before; but then, as he pointed out, this is to be expected for her God knew the way out of the grave.
As the latest round of persecutions—some subtle, others less so—begins once more to get underway all over Europe—underscored by the funereal tones of that ever-recurrent Culture of Death—it is worth remembering this.
Consequently, the film’s resonance is remarkably timely, unsettling for reasons that have nothing to do with the last century’s wars but instead on account of the ongoing invisible ones still being fought today.
In the final scene, the children reassemble. This time it is no longer to play soccer with the priest but instead to watch helplessly his public execution at the hands of an impatient SS officer. At first, it does indeed appear that the Nazis have triumphed. The death of the priest stirs a different reaction, however, among the children watching. Without emotion, they turn and march away with something in their gait that betrays a renewed sense of purpose. This is perhaps not so surprising as, in the end, it is to “little ones” such as these that the Kingdom is given. Significantly, the children turn towards St. Peter’s—its watching presence a constant reminder that the Gates of Hell did not, and never shall, prevail.