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.

Article continues below

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."

In another sobering exchange, two women walk through the crumbling city. "Do you think these Americans really exist?" one asks. Glancing at the shells of some bombed-out buildings, her companion shrugs indifferently and says only "It appears so." The occupants of Rome feel as though they are victims of forces beyond their control. They are ruled by great powers far removed from their daily lives.

In that sort of world, you can easily assume your moral choices are inconsequential. Or, at least, it is easier to soothe and rationalize away your moral reservations. But that lasts only until a moral torpor blurs the lines between victims and victimizers to the point of spiritual confusion.

As the film moves to the second act, the action begins to condense around the interrogation of a resistance fighter. Don Pietro (not the same figure who participated in the bread riot) emerges as a central figure. He is the conscience of the film. His is not a removed, impartial faith. He helps the resistance hide guns and uses his relative freedom from curfews to deliver messages to the underground.

But neither is Don Pietro a revolutionary in priest's garb. After being forced to witness the prolonged torture of a suspected insurgent, Don Pietro curses the Germans and then stops, horrified at what he has done: "My God, what have I said? Forgive me Lord." It is Don Pietro who will eventually deliver the film's thematic coda when he says that "it's not that hard to die a good death," and then continues, "what's hard is to live a good life."

Article continues below

This mentality - as horrified by its own anger and cursing as by the oppressor's tyranny - may seem foreign to a modern audience. After all, we are steeped in revenge narratives and the rhetoric of cultural and political self-righteousness. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the film is that it makes Don Pietro's self-approbation appear natural, human, and normal. He is not an exceptional Christian; he is a normal Christian in exceptional circumstance.

This theme is developed subtly. Rossellini always frames his characters' struggles within a long historical perspective. The film's final shot juxtaposes children and the Roman skyline with St. Peter's dome featured prominently. This reminds us that as topical as the film was and as fresh as the psychic wounds from the war were (it was released less than a year after VE day), they were not unique in the world's history. Rome was an open city centuries before. Each generation must wrestle to live a good life regardless of the proximity of death. Rossellini also links the modern with the ancient in his masterpiece Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia), where the estrangement of an English married couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) plays out against the backdrop of a tour of the ruins of Pompeii.

In a sort of paradox, the sweeping historical perspective of Rossellini's films highlights rather than diminishes their moral questions. They force us to look beyond the scope of one life or one generation. And in so doing, they invite an analysis that is broader than what most current movie narratives provide.

You can find a striking contrast to Rome, Open City in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, which compresses over a decade of action into a single narrative. By doing so, it reduces the breadth of its moral questions (such as the use of torture) from the broadly philosophical or moral ("is it right?") to the narratively pragmatic ("did it work?"). Ben Affleck's Argo uses history as merely a backdrop, with the roots of the Iranian revolution covered in a two minute prologue and the coming years of war between Iran and Iraq elided as champagne is served on the plane, accompanied by retrospective pats on the back. But the inability to consider moral questions that stem beyond "the mission" is not unique to Argo - just most pronounced in it.

Article continues below

Oddly enough, the one recent popular franchise that gets close to Rossellini in this way is George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice. By spanning multiple generations and using multiple points of view, that series of novels (and the HBO series Game of Thrones, which is based upon it) invites readers (or viewers) to judge its characters' actions by more than whether or not they are effective. But not surprisingly, as the novels and series have progressed, the lack of a moral center embodied in a single, central protagonist has brought on some negative critiques, just as Rome, Open City initially underwhelmed an Italian population weary with the moral demands of war and seeking escapism in its movies.

It is hard to imagine seeing a corollary character to Don Pietro in Zero Dark Thirty, someone who would look at terrorism and torture and be repulsed by his or her own drive for vengeance. In the world depicted by that film, history extends only as far back as 9/11. The traumatic years of war in Rome, Open City are placed in a broader, cosmic historical span that helps guard against our tendency to see our own moment in history as exceptional.

After Rome, Open City, Roberto Rossellini would work regularly for over three decades until his death in 1977. His style would develop beyond neorealism—he told Cahiers that "one can't forever shoot films in bombed cities"—but he never deviated from his focus on people as moral creatures confronted with the challenge of how hard it is to "live a good life." He would go on to film Federico Fellini's screenplay for The Flowers of St. Francis, film Ingrid Bergman in Giovanna d'Arco al rogo (Joan at the Stake), write a television miniseries on the Acts of the Apostle and direct television films on Augustine of Hippo, Socrates, and Blaise Pascal.

Linking his portraits of everyday people with historical saints was the belief that the latter were no different in essence from the former: "[…] It seems to me that what is so astonishing, so extraordinary, so moving in human reality is precisely the fact that noble acts and momentous events happen in the same way and produce the same impression as the ordinary facts of life; I therefore attempt to convey both in the same manner—a method with its own very definite form of dramatic interest…"