The title of Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta [Rome, Open City] is really a masterpiece of a title. An "open city" is one that is immune from attack because it has been declared demilitarized. Of course, Rome in World War II was not in any estimation "immune from attack," and was in fact dramatically under attack both from the forces of fascism and German occupation. Also, the connotations of "open city" extend beyond its formal definition. It expresses ideas of Rome as an open city in terms of being unsuspectingly invaded by new ideologies that it may not at first have understood. It also implies that Rome was better as a closed city, self-contained and left to its own devices and values. It's almost as good a title as Philadelphia, the reigning king of titles.
Roma, città aperta is an exploration of the effects of war on real people. In this sense, it is really very good at creating real people in believable situations and allowing the audience to sympathize with them completely. However, and this is the great weakness of all propaganda from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to the works of Leni Riefenstahl and Frank Capra and of all melodrama from Henry King's Tol'able David to John Singleton's Higher Learning, Roma, città aperta paints its villains in such broad strokes that even the realistic portraits become flawed in opposition to them.
In defense of Riefenstahl and Capra, at least their propaganda was clearly propaganda. Whatever effects that propaganda may have had during specific historical periods, at least it didn't ever try to present itself as anything else. In contrast, The Birth of a Nation and Roma, città aperta try to present themselves almost as historical accounts presented in realistic ways, while they are in fact beating the drum for particular patriotisms and causes in ways that undermine both their emotional impact and their dramatic integrity.
The comparison of Roma, città aperta to The Birth of a Nation at first may seem easy: both films are about nations trying to recover from wars that changed them forever, both use the framework of family structures to bring into relief the horrors of the forces they saw as opposed to or unmindful of the importance of such relationships, and both caricature the opposition horribly in misguided attempts to gain sympathy for their protagonists.
In the case of The Birth of a Nation, the caricatured party was the newly freed slaves and those who took advantage of them to further their own ends, harming the old ways of family harmony that supposedly prevailed in the South previously. In Roma, città aperta, the caricatures are the Nazis. It may be debatable whether any Nazi can ever be unfairly caricatured as evil, given the history of that movement, but the evil is not the problem in Roma, città aperta. Instead, the Nazis are not simply portrayed as evil, torturers, needlessly cruel, but as almost congenitally so. And that congenital evil apparently stems from their anti-family, more-than-vaguely portrayed homosexuality.
This film makes unfortunate, dated conclusions about homosexuality, as The Birth of a Nation did about race. Henry Feist's Bergmann and Giovanna Galletti's Ingrid represent a sort of soulless, godless homosexual hegemony that many pseudo-historians have actually attributed to the Nazis. This is especially true when they are contrasted with the neighborhood we sympathize with, which really does come to represent effectively the valuable things about family and community that are found in Rome and throughout the world (even in Germany). Bergmann struts, prances and lisps, and Ingrid tempts the young actress with the same kind of "lesbian hypnotism" discussed in the documentary The Celluloid Closet. The film is a bit ahead of its time: Hollywood films were still portraying homosexuals as a joke. Despite the supposed characteristic of neorealism of refusing to pass facile moral judgments, this film seems to fail on that score. One wonders how Rossellini ever brought himself to love Ingrid Bergman. The half-thought-out treatment of the Nazis ultimately distracts from the points the film makes about heroism, innocence, and simple ordinary life.
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