The Passion Play in Rome, Open City
Rome, Open City follows Giorgio Mandfredi, a Resistance leader opposed to the Nazis. He needs to flee the city and finds help with Francesco, a man engaged to a single mother, Pina. Manfredi is turned over to the Gestapo by his lover Marina, but in prison finds support from the priest Don Pietro Pellegrini who is on the same side of the fight as he is. When Major Bergman cannot get the Priest to speak, Manfredi is tortured in Don Pietro’s view. Roberto Rossellini shows a unified Italy through the blending of a Communist’s world and a Catholic’s world by presenting this torture like a Passion play.
The setting in this scene of Rome, Open City is much like a play venue. Don Pietro is seated perpendicular to Major Bergman’s desk so he faces the door where Manfredi is being held. He is the audience to the violence. Major Bergman opens the door, and it is like raising a curtain for the stage, which in this case is the torture room. The doorframe acts like a proscenium arch which maintains a fourth wall to the torture held within the room. These two rooms become a setting for a play with an audience and a stage. By showing this in a play venue, we can draw connections to what sort of character Manfredi is “playing.” Don Pietro is forced to view the Communist as a Christ character in this context, blending what would normally be the Priest’s world with Manfredi as the main character. This shows a connection between two very disparate men, a priest and an atheist, that becomes a united force because their spheres are brought together through a performance of torture.
Maintaining the fourth wall and theatrical feel of the scene, the camera keeps Don Pietro’s point of view. We are only shown the torture in the room from the outside with a visible doorframe. We are kept at a distance from it much like Don Pietro with long and medium-long shots. The only close-ups used are those on Don Pietro’s face. We see his reaction clearly, making the focus on the audience, not the action “on stage.” This emphasizes the performance feel of this sequence since the torture is clearly filmed as if we are watching a play happen, not like we are in the action itself with the camera filming in the torture room. Through the use of a close-up on the audience member, we see that Don Pietro is deeply disturbed by the pain of another man who normally would not be on the same sides. The use of distance helps to show how the Passion play deeply affects the Priest and strikes a bond between the two men. This bond shows a united Italian force against the Nazis since their sentiments and pain are for the same cause.
The props used within this torture scene make this “play” one like a Passion play of Christ’s torture. Through the doorframe, we see one of the officers cross the room with a whip in hand. While it is not used in this segment, the whip is reminiscent of the scourging of Christ before the crucifixion. Also familiar with the crucifixion story is the Roman soldiers going about their duties lightly. Instead of casting lots for clothing or dressing up the prisoner, these Nazi officers light cigars with the blow torches that will soon be used to torture Manfredi. The use of these props indicates their lack of scruples in this act. Earlier in the scene Major Bergman mentions that Manfredi is an atheist, but in this torture sequence, he’s shown as a martyr withstanding torture much like Christ. The props highlight that paradoxical connection. This view of Manfredi mixes Don Pietro’s and Manfredi’s belief systems to show Italian unity by making the two systems merge together.
By presenting Manfredi’s torture like a Passion play, Rossellini successfully draws a connection between two unlikely allies. A Catholic priest and an atheist are brought together through the blending of their two worlds, which displays an Italian solidarity against an outside force. This film is a landmark in what would be a truly Italian cinema style recognized throughout the world, neorealism. By presenting Italy as a unified coalition of groups in Rome, Open City, Rossellini created a nationalistic film that helped to define Italy’s cinema industry.