Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City shows the darkest possible side of doing what is right and heroism. The film is arranged in two separate acts, both about lives effected by the 1944 Nazi invasion of Rome. The first tells the story of Pina (Anna Magnani), a pregnant woman joined closely with the priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), to protect Italian resisters of Nazi occupation. We are taken into the depths of their passions for the people suffering around them and of their own hurts. They suffer much and are faced with many temptations to risk other peoples’ lives for the security of their own, but they both continue to fight, to suffer, and to sacrifice for others regardless of the cost to themselves.
The second act continues the story of Father Pellegrini but this time closer to the trenches. He and Giorgio (Marcello Palgiero) are detained by the Nazis, and again each one is faced with the choice of betraying his own friend to free himself or continuing to experience the torture that they’re enduring and that they know could kill them. We see the brutality of the torture in surprisingly graphic detail for a 1945 film. In fact, in makes the torture in Zero Dark Thirty look fairly tame.
Watching Rome, Open City can fell almost like an act of torture itself, because it is so unrelenting in telling us the truth about what it was like to attempt to resist the Nazis in their situation. Torturous, yes, but it is nevertheless gratifying. It is so because we see what true heroism is. We watch people willing to sacrifice and to give their own lives for others. Seeing the horrible things that happened before our faces confronts us and forces us to ask ourselves how we would respond in such situations. It shows what it looks like for love to conquer hate, even when by all accounts it appears that hate is winning. Father Pellegrini lives his faith in God and his love for humanity in every scene of the movie. He spreads that to the other people in the movie, especially his main partner in resistance for each act. We get to see what it means to live out a life of faith and love in circumstances that couldn’t be more hostile to faith and love.
Rome, Open City is one of the great examples of the Italian neorealism movement that directors Vittorio De Sica and Luchiano Visconti are best known for. Rossellini holds little back, taking us right in the midst of torment and evil. But because his three main characters so faithfully resist that evil, we see hope that even in the most violent of situations in the world, there are always people successfully fighting against that evil. The movie encourages that type of resistance and helps motivate us to join it wherever we see injustice, regardless of any potential outcome that will be harmful to ourselves.