The film pioneer Roberto Rossellini (who married Ingrid Bergman and fathered acclaimed actress Isabella Rossellini) thought there was something more important about his films than their new, experimental style. In a 1954 interview with Maurice Scherer and Francois Truffaut in the influential Cahiers du Cinema, Rossellini insisted that what made his films distinctive had less to do with his cinema style than with his approach to his subject matter. "For me," he said, "it is above all a moral standpoint from which to view the world. Afterwards it becomes an aesthetic standpoint, but the point of departure is definitely moral."
It's now 35 years after Rossellini's death, and closing in on the seventieth anniversary of the post-war trilogy (Rome Open City; Paisan; Germany, Year Zero) that cemented his reputation. And his films are more important than ever. They're a stark contrast with our own cultural landscape. Today, spectacle is king and filmmakers need celebrities to ensure box-office payoffs for their franchises. But Rossellini reminds us that film can challenge our assumptions and make us wrestle with moral questions.
Rossellini is one of the pioneers of the Italian neorealism movement in film. Stylistically, "neorealism" usually refers to shooting on location, using non-professional actors, and - importantly - not relying on what Scherer and Truffaut refer to in their interview as "cinematic effects." This isn't just the absence of special effects; it's a kind of impassive tone. They say of Rossellini's films that they "don't give special emphasis to important moments" and that they "place everything on the same level of intensity." That means they don't depend on the kind of filmic cues that dramatically underline a scene's significance for the audience.
While this is all true, a careful viewing of Rome, Open City makes it clear that Rossellini was right when he said his primary concerns in his early films were moral, not aesthetic. He helped invent a new style - a new film language - in order to tell particular (moral) stories more effectively, not just because he wanted to do something new.
The title of Rome, Open City, his first international success, refers to the Italian capital's status as neither liberated nor actively defended at the end of World War II. By showing a city demoralized by war, now living in the shadow of imminent but still unrealized deliverance, Rossellini makes a strong metaphor for the Christian spiritual condition.
The plot is loosely structured around an Italian resistance fighter's attempts to avoid being captured by the Germans. But the first half of the film is as much about setting as it is about advancing the plot. Daily uncertainties wear on the people and make the idealistic compromisers hard to distinguish from the scheming opportunists. When a crowd breaks into a bakery during a bread riot, a sexton crosses himself and then joins the fray. A German officer looking out a basement window for a fugitive pauses to glimpse up the skirts of women walking above him.
The people are not particularly depraved—that will come in the second act's torture scenes. They are just bent to the harsh realities of a world where hard daily compunctions overshadow all other concerns. "There are things you do without thinking," one resident confesses "that don't feel like you are wrong."