Cinematic city (1): Rossellini’s Open City and Rome

Early January I taught a course on Rome in film at the Dutch Institute in Rome. Together with Hans de Valk, historian and staff member of the institute, we gave lectures on history, urban development, and film history and theory, connected to postwar Italian cinema but also the pre- and postwar war Roman urbanism and architecture.  The oldest film we treated was Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945), shot while war was still going on in the North and the Allies were occupying the city. Rossellini could not use the Cinecittà studios (first emptied by the Germans, then a refugee camp), so he shot his interiors in an improvised studio in Via degli Avignonesi, a narrow street between Via del Traforo and Via Quattro Fontane. Actually a parallel street of Via Rasella, where in 1943 a severe attack by the Resistance on the German army had taken place; the Germans had counterreacted with the massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine.  Rossellini had few lights and cables from the neighbouring Stars and Stripes, a journal run by American army officers, provided the necessary electricty. It was here that Rossellini shot the scenes of the Gestapo headquarters, the dressing room of Marina, and the sacristy of Don Pietro.

The outdoor scenes were shot in the Prenestino quarter, a popular quarter then (it still is), stuck between a triangle of railroads while nowadays the highway or Tangenziale runs right through the quarter and hangs over part of the old tram tracks – the reversed situation of that in French Connection. It was here in Via Raimondo Montecuccoli nr. 17, almost at the dead end of the road, that for instance the scene of the razzia in Open City was shot, where all inhabitants are dragged into the courtyard while the Germans and fascists look for a hidden communist, a head of the Resistance. When her husband to be, Francesco, is found and dragged away on a truck, Pina (Anna Magnani) goes berserk, breaks through the soldiers, runs onto the main street after her man… and is killed. The local priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), also a Resistance man, can only hold up Pina a Pietà-like pose, while Pina’s little son goes hysterical. A classic scene that still gives you a lump in your troat.

This clip shows you both the tragic scene described above and the scene just before, in which the staircase of nr. 36 is visible.

As the staircase in nr. 17 was too narrow, the scenes in the staircase in Open City, as during the razzia, were filmed in the staircase of nr. 36, just opposite the street. Nowadays an elevator blocks most of our view when looking up, but the original ramps are still visible. It was also at nr. 36 that the washing room was filmed where the men hid during the razzia, but this space has been demolished in later years. A sign at nr. 17, and another one at the entrance of the street, commemorate the shooting of Rossellini’s film here. 

At the Via Casilina, the church of Sant’Elena, fully named Sant’Elena fuori Porta Prenestina (arch. Palombi 1914), functioned as the church of Don Pietro in Open City. Unfortunately the church was twice closed when we got there, but behind it there is still a courtyard visible where in the beginning of Open City the priest is playing soccer with the local schoolboys.

~ by Ivo Blom on February 9, 2010.

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