New York, March 1946
Within a few days of the liberation of Rome by the American forces two Italian film makers began work on ‘Open City‘. They drew their talent where they could. Few of the actors in the film are professionals. They had planned this saga for a long time before the Germans were kicked out and now with equipment stolen from their enemies they proceeded to put on film the terror of their long occupation. Essentially simple in plot the script is rich in pictures of the Roman population living in the fear of a brutal enemy, scrounging a scant livelihood while their masters looted the land and fighting back as opportunity offered through moral and physical sabotage and the raids of the armed underground. Into the vast canvas of occupied Rome as it unfolds on the screen come strong portraits of a Partisan priest, a communist engineer, a printer for the underground, the young widow he wants to marry and her eight year old son, an actress corrupted by narcotics, the Gestapo chief and a woman Gestapo agent. Besides these there are many fine minor performances by collaborators, Partisans and just natives of the city. With backgrounds so rich in character studies and the expanses of Rome itself the action takes place in an atmosphere of epic reality that expands the film into one of the great documents to have come out of the war.
In her long history Italy has know tragedy in all forms. ‘Open City‘ is a sincere and piteous picture of her latest visitation. But there is a deeper meaning to the film than a re-enactment of the brutal occupation of the city of Rome. To the thoughtful ‘Open City‘ is not a tale merely of Italy, it is universal story of men of heroic virtue, wherever they may be, whatever their tongue or the color of their skin. It is in its catholicity of appeal, in its vast humanity that the film takes on its majestic scope and its large moral proportions. The excellent cast, imaginative direction and profoundly sincere purpose has given from and substance to these aspirations of mankind in terms that are realistic, deeply moving and honest.
A picture like ‘Open City‘ is apt to raise the question of propaganda in a work of art. All popular art takes on some aspects of propaganda: church murals, national monuments, popular literature. The film too if it has anything important to say, says it in terms of persuasion that come under the head of propaganda. The crux of the problem is not that propaganda is bad or artistically inadmissible but that the propaganda is justified by the facts and the intention. In ‘Open City‘ the story has a factual basis. It also has the intention to proclaim to the world that men of good will always will fight and die for justice.
This is an astonishing film — astonishing that it should come from an Italy plunged in disgrace by the perfidy and cowardice of her ruler and the weakness of large sections of her people; astonishing that, in thirty years, the Italians have produced nothing like it. It is in the grand tradition of the screen, masterful in direction and incident, eloquent in acting, particularly the acting of Anna Magnani in a role so endearing that her death half way through seems the loss of an old friend. Almost from the beginning it powerfully grips the spectator, and soon it appears that the events before him constitute his own scene, his own story. That is because it was the scene and the story of the Partisan film workers who made it. They have produced a film which silences controversy in respect for men who have the bravery to try to redeem the shame of their countrymen.