Well, yes. But not for its gritty realism aesthetically - there have been grittier and more documentary-esque films since then, improving on the genre it inaugured - so much as for its story filled with moral ambiguity (avant garde for films at the time?), and its contextual power. That is, while the filmmaking still carries some vestiges of pre-neorealist aesthetics (melodramatic music, a melodramatic performance by the Nazi villain), the story itself is not only completely plausible in its emotional complexity, but it also is a patchwork of real stories. Indeed, the meta of Roma, città aperta is more neorealist than its style: that is, filming began two months after Rome's liberation by the Allied Forces, many of the characters are based on real people (for example, the priest, Pietro Pellegrini, was based on real-life resistance fighter, Pietro Pappagallo) and many of the film's scenes are direct reproductions of events which took place during Rome's occupation by the Nazis. Knowing this is far more powerful than the "aesthetic" realism which director Roberto Rossellini first experimented with. To our 21st century eyes, shots of the streets of Rome aren't so impressive - though they must have been, back in the day when everything was filmed on fabricated sets. But the meta - the way the historical context informed so many aspects of the film itself - is stunning and emotionally wringing.
The story follows a small ensemble of characters who range along the moral spectrum. There's resistance leader Giorgio (Luigi Ferraris), who is currently hiding from the Gestapo in the apartment of his friends, the widowed single mother Pina (an amazing Anna Magnani), her young son, Marcello (Vino Annichiarico), and her vacuous, airhead sister, Lauretta (Carla Rovere). Also helping is Giorgio's friend and Pina's fiancee, fellow resistance fighter Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), as well as the secretly anti-Fascist, resistance-aiding priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi). The Gestapo leader is the ruthless and effete Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), who is using Giorgio's ex-flame, the drug addict Marina (Maria Michi), to uncover the resistance cell. An interesting minor character is a nameless Austrian Nazi deserter (Ákos Tolnay), who is sheltered by Don Pietro.
Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) and Pina (Anna Magnani).
As we said, this is a very powerful film. Powerful because (1) almost all the details are based on true events, and (2) an entire moral spectrum is presented. While Don Pietro and Major Bergmann are the polar opposites of good and evil, each purely one or the other, respectively, the rest of the characters are interestingly nebulous. And actually even Don Pietro, who is the paragon of heroic virtue, is allowed moments of humanity: anxiety, fear, doubt. Indeed, the only purely cinematic creation is the Gestapo commander, Bergmann, who is so uniformly EVIL (in capital letters) that he sticks out. Even his fellow Nazis and collaborator friends are more human - in one wringing moment, a drunken Gestapo officer cynically and scathingly criticizes the Third Reich, saying that now he gets drunk every night to forget what he does and, as he drinks, he sees more and more clearly. Painfully, this same Gestapo officer is then the chief executioner in the film's final scene. There are other interesting moments when the Austrian deserter comforts an orphaned resistance fighter.
Our copy of the DVD came with a little booklet talking about the film's significance. One of the interesting things the booklet mentioned was how this film marked a schism between the "old" censored cinema and the "new" cinema which didn't hesitate to show gruesome realities. The key scene is the torture scene when, rather than focusing only on the horrified Don Pietro's reactions to what he is forced to watch, director Rossellini cuts to the torture itself. Again, to 21st century eyes, this torture isn't much worse than a PG rating. But the significance of showing violence in order to drive home a point - in this case, the cruelty of the Third Reich - is interesting, and it made us think (again) of gratuitous violence and this year's Watchmen. Portraying gruesome, gory explosions of Vietnamese soldiers at the hands of morally ambiguous American superheroes is one (somewhat roundabout) way of criticizing American military interventions and American imperialism. But using gruesome, gory explosions just to "up the ante" of a film's "hardcore"-ness cheapens things. In particular, it seems to cheapen the whole point of what violence in cinema, as Rossellini used it, is supposed to achieve: it's poetry of witness, a condemnation of real-life cruelty. Rossellini wasn't out to shock his viewers just for the sake of it: he wanted to shock them into awareness of what the occupation of Rome had entailed, all the terrible things that had happened just a few months prior to the film!
The final, iconic shot.
The stars of the show, performance-wise, were Anna Magnani as the working class, world-weary Pina, and Aldo Fabrizi as the brave, bumbling priest Don Pietro. The Catholic Church is badly in need of a good PR campaign at the moment, and this film gives us the coolest priest since Father Mulcahy. Don Pietro provides also an inspiring reminder that not all the clergy abided by the Vatican's controversial "hear no evil, see no evil" policy during the occupation (just as Pina demonstrates that not all disempowered housewives were mindlessly Fascist). We practically cheered when Don Pietro stood his ground during the Gestapo interrogation scene:
Major Bergman: Then I'll tell you who [Giorgio the resistance fighter] is. He's subversive, he's fought with the Reds in Spain. His life is dedicated to fighting society, religion. He is an atheist... your enemy...
Don Pietro: I am a Catholic priest. I believe that those who fight for justice and truth walk in the path of God and the paths of God are infinite.
Definitely recommend this one - as an intense and intimately real portrait of life in occupied Rome, and as a moving story of human courage and human weakness.