Friday, April 20, 2012

TV Bites: Roma, città aperta (Rome: Open City)

Minestra di cavolo (Italian Cabbage Soup)

A shorter version of this post appears at the Criterion Collection Website

So, welcome to la seconda parte of my Italian double bill. Part one, Cinema Paradiso, was set in Sicily where I concluded by trip back in January. And now we are in Rome, where I began my trip. The idea for these came in planning the trip when I decided to rewatch some classic Italian films.

While in Rome I rewarded myself by stopping at the spot where Federico Fellini used to set up his little caricature drawing booth - and where Rossellini first met with him and invited him to co-write Rome: Open City. I also took a tour of Cinecittà studio (where they have on display Anita Ekberg's outfit from La Dolce Vita amongst other items). But I did not get a chance to go to the street and see the apartment building used in Rome: Open City. (Gotta have an excuse to return, don't I?).

Rome is dubbed the "Eternal City" for good reason. Watching Rome: Open City, you witness first hand the aftermath World War II. But as you walk its streets today, those images are just another page in its long history. From almost any vantage point (and there are so many to choose from), you cannot escape being overwhelmed by its “eternalness.” But beyond the architecture, that history is also experienced though the souls of its people, and, of course, its food.

Rome: Open City is available for streaming @ Hulu+ in its restored version, and you can purchase it as part of the excellent Criterion Rossellini's War Trilogy DVD/Blu-Ray edition from Amazon.


"It'll be over, Pina, and spring will come back. And it'll be even more beautiful because we'll be free. We have to believe in it. We have to really want it. You'll see. I know these things. I feel them, but I don't know how to explain them to you.... But I believe it's like that. We mustn't be scared of today or tomorrow because we're on the right path.... We're fighting for something that has to come, that's impossible not to come. Maybe the road is long and hard, but we'll get there and we'll see a better world. And above all, our children will know it...."

Now there's no way I'm going to be able to tell the whole story of the making of Rome: Open City here, and even what I am writing may not be the entire truth of the tale.

Let's begin with some basic truths. The term "open city" from which the film takes its title, Wikipedia defines as: "In war, in the event of the imminent capture of a city, the government/military structure of the nation that controls the city will sometimes declare it an open city, thus announcing that they have abandoned all defensive efforts." And while Rome was declared as such in August 1943, the Germans ran the city with an iron fist, and it was bombed several times by both the Allies and the Germans until the Americans arrived in the city in June 1944. The story of Rome: Open City takes place sometime during those 270 days when the Germans occupied Rome before the Americans arrived.

As Peter Brunette notes in his book on Rossellini, that Rome was an "open city" during the German occupation didn't mean that the Romans were free from the tribulations of war by any means. He wrote: "The penalty for harboring Allied escapees, for example, or for desertion of work, or even for owning a radio transmitter was death. Taking photographs outside was punishable by life imprisonment. At one point it was even forbidden to ride a bicycle because so many Nazi soldiers were being killed from them."

Previous to the occupation, under Benito Mussolini's fascist state, filmmaking was very much alive in Italy. Even Cinecittà, the famed studio in Rome, was churning out films, until it was bombed several times by the Allies and production was moved to Venice until after the war when the facilities were rebuilt (though from 1944-50, it was used as a refugee camp). Rossellini began working in films at an early age before the war and from the early 1940's until the German occupation he was directing propaganda films for producer (and friend) Vittorio Mussolini, the son of Il Duce. (Whether Rossellini ever believed in fascism or only saw an opportunity to make films has been a subject of some debate.)

So, now it's summer 1944, the Americans have arrived, and Rossellini is anxious to make a new film. How the screenplay for Rome: Open City was conceived is somewhat difficult to put together - because so many of the people involved have their own versions. For example, Brunette wrote it began with a desire by wannabe producer and former wife of Egyptian King Faud, Countess Chiara Politi, to make a documentary about the life of a priest, Don Marsini. Tad Gallagher, in his book, has Rossellini pitching an episodic film (much like his next film Paisan) depicting the story of another priest, Don Pietro Papagallo.

Don Marsini, a former military chaplain, had been arrested by the Germans for arms trafficking. And Don Papagallo, also held by the Germans at the same time, was considered a Communist and was an expert in making forged identity papers. The Pope appealed to the German High Command to release both priests, but the head of the Gestapo, one Lt. Col. Herbert Kappler, decided only one should be freed and killed Marsini. According to Gallagher, Alberto Consiglio (one of the uncredited screenwriters) suggested they merge the two into one character as the death of the priest would be more dramatic. (The Kappler role, named Major Bergmann in the movie, was portrayed by an Austrian, Jewish, gay dancer who had been living in Italy for many years named Harry Feist. Think about that irony for a moment.)

Rossellini wanted to cast as his leads Aldo Fabrizi, who was a well-known vaudeville comic, and Anna Magnani, who was an equally popular cabaret singer. Some people felt at the time that casting these comedic actors for this "serious" film was sacrilege, but later it seemed like perfect casting.

How Fabrizi signed on is how Federico Fellini got involved. Now the thing with Maestro Fellini, if you go back to my post on Amarcord, is that he's a man who is given to, shall we say, a penchant for mythologizing his life, and thus his account of the story behind Rome: Open City is to be read with skepticism. He recalled the tale in a magazine article entitled "Sweet Beginnings," which can be found in the collection Fellini on Fellini. (There's another story in this article I won't have time to get to which concerns how an American distributor got involved that Fellini's imaginative recollection of the details wound up causing a defamation suit by said distributor directed at Fellini.)

In Fellini's version, the Countess had written a short screenplay about Don Marsini and it was the Countess who asked for Fabrizi to play the title role. Because Fellini was friends with Fabrizi (Fellini also wrote comedy sketches for him), Sergio Amidei (who is generally thought to be the main screenwriter of Rome: Open City) suggested to Rossellini (who barely knew Fellini then) to be their intermediary and try to get Fabrizi to work at the price they could afford to pay him. At first Fabrizi turned them down. At this point, Fellini was apparently brought in to co-write with Amidei, which, according to other sources, may have been a ploy by Rossellini to further entice Fabrizi to take the role. And it has also been said that Fellini and Amidei were working on a script themselves at the time about some children playing deadly pranks on the Germans during the occupation. At some point, according to this version, the two scripts became one with the latter story becoming one of the subplots of the new screenplay. "And so in a week," according to Fellini: "working in my kitchen because it was the only warm place in the house, we got up this script.... I went back to see Fabrizi with the script and talked him into doing it.... And thus Rome: Open City was born."

To add to all this fuzziness as to what is the truth and what isn't, is a novel written in 1995 entitled Celluloide, which became a movie the following year (starring Giancarlo Giannini), that tells a fictionalized version of how Rome: Open City came to be. There is even an oft-repeated myth (here, for example) that the film was made "undercover" during the occupation - FALSE, though there was still fighting going on in Northern Italy, but not in Rome.

But back to the story. Anna Magnani wasn't, in fact, Rossellini's first choice. He originally wanted actress Clara Calamai. But according to Gallagher's book, during negotiations Calamai became more and more demanding, like wanting her character's (Pina) death postponed until the last reel with a long monologue for her to recite as she died. After the success of the film, she claimed she couldn't have made the film because she was committed to another film (other sources just tell her version). So Rossellini went to see Magnani who eventually agreed to do the film... for one lira more than Fabrizi was being paid.

Once the initial money and actors were committed, production began. But even with the money they raised, it was barely enough. Rossellini continued to somehow coerce people to continue funding the film. But more importantly, Rossellini decided to break all cinematic conventions of the time and, except for a few sets, the majority of the film would be shot on the streets and in real locations. It would be cheaper, but it was also the only way to really capture Rome just as it was at that moment and have the city be a character, living and breathing, damaged but still "eternal," in the film. And other than the main characters played by professional actors, the rest of the cast were nonactors. In fact, many of the German soldiers were apparently prisoners they got to work as extras.

Fellini said of Rossellini, "[H]e didn't let himself be intimidated by any school, any particular technique. A great freedom.... Rossellini made me see that you could make films in spite of the huge number of people involved, all the organization, the schedules, even the technical aspects of the cameras. He gave me the impression that the whole cinematic structure could be completely ignored. Mastered, then completely ignored.”

I truly believe that in Rome: Open City I brought something new," Rossellini himself said. "Back then it was inconceivable to film in a real location, to shoot in a passageway like that, to bring cameras into stairwells. It just wasn't done. The great rite of filmmaking was always very pompously celebrated on studio sets. Shooting out in the streets was unheard of. In this, Rome: Open City represents something new, because I tried to make a film the way it should be done, accessible to everyone, outside the control of the big studio system and all the slavery that entails. I've always advocated finding this ease of expression and demythologizing the camera and filmmaking, etc., tackling it in a much simpler way, without worrying too much about perfect shots and images, etc. The important thing was to get your point across."

One problem was getting consistent electricity at the building where the sets were. They solved it by "borrowing" electricity from their neighbor - the office where the US Stars & Stripes newspaper had set up shop. Their other neighbor was a brothel and apparently shooting would be interrupted by drunken American soldiers knocking on the wrong door.

It was often said by Rossellini and others involved that since the Germans had confiscated film equipment during the occupation, they had to buy scraps of film stock through the black market. According to David Forgacs' book, when the Cineteca Nazionale restored the film in 1995 they found "the original negative consisted of just three different types of film" and the reasons there are image brightness inconsistencies in the negative was due to "poor processing" at the laboratory. I don't know if that means the story was just a marketing ploy, or that Rossellini just preferred not to admit there were problems with the developing. Forgac suggests Rossellini was not much of a technician and wasn't overly concerned about the lighting and such. He quotes Rossellini: "The content of the picture is to me infinitely more important than its technical perfection."

But with all the other problems, the six months it took to complete, nevertheless Rossellini managed to capture on film a sense that what we were watching was actually happening and we were simply observers of it. Not to deter from Rossellini's skill in this film, but it didn't take a lot of acting for the performers to recreate how they lived and felt just months earlier under the German occupation.

Anna Magnani recalled the day she filmed the scene which would become perhaps "the" iconic visual symbolizing the entire war years in Italy. “I didn’t rehearse the death scene. With Rossellini, great director that he was, you didn’t rehearse, you just let the camera roll. He knew that once the setting was right for me I would do it. During the round-up, when I came out of the front door, I suddenly saw things again.... I plunged back into the time when they were taking away the young people all over Rome. Kids. Because the people who were there with their backs to the wall were real people. The Germans were real Germans taken from a prison camp. Suddenly I wasn’t me any more, do you understand? I was that character.”

Rome: Open City became a huge success both in Italy and America when it was first released, winning the Grand Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar.


The cinematic style some say Rossellini defined in this film is called Neorealism (and while some say it is the quintessential Neorealist film, others argue whether it is Neorealist at all - let's face it, arguing is part of the Italian soul). Rossellini once stated that to him “Neorealism consists of following someone with love and watching all his discoveries and impressions.... The camera does not leave the actor, and in this way the camera affects the most complex journeys.”

Italian commemorative postage stamp

In the introduction to their book "Global Neorealism: The Transnational History of a Film Style" authors Saverio Giovacchini and Robert Sklar note that like the elusive Film Noir, "everyone from the film critic to the ordinary moviegoer seems to recognize a Neorealist or noir film even in the absence of a consensual, unified, critical definition of the genre." But as their title suggests, Neorealism, and significantly Rome: Open City, has inspired generations of filmmakers around the world.

Martin Scorsese has said, "After Neorealism, nothing would be the same again.... If you ever have any doubt about the power of movies to effect change in the world, to interact with life and fortify the soul, the study the example of Neorealism. So what was Neorealism? Was it a genre? Was it a style? Was it is a set of rules? Well, more than anything else, it was a response to a terrible moment in Italy's history. The Neorealists had to communicate to the world everything their country had gone through. They needed to dissolve the barrier between documentary and fiction and, in the process, they permanently changed the rules of moviemaking."

"Altogether," he continued, "these movies amounted to a prayer that the rest of the world look closely at the Italian people and see their essential humanity. That's why they had to be truthful. There was no choice. So Neorealism wasn't just about making the best of a bad situation - although it was that, too.... But for the first time, illusion took a backseat to reality.... The Neorealist directors didn't just want to make these films, they had to make these pictures. Beyond everything else, Neorealism came to exist out of a moral and spiritual necessity."


Now it seems in Italy that if someone were, say, giving you the evil eye, you would say: "Che cavolo vuoi?" or "Che cavolo guardi?" which roughly translates to "What the **** you want?" or "What the **** you lookin' at?" But literally translated, it mean "Which cabbage do you want?" and "Which cabbage you lookin' at?" In fact, just saying "Cavolo!" is more or less the equivalent of saying "Damn!" or "F**k!" Or my personal favorite: "Non m'importa un cavolo" ("It's not important to a cabbage") which is to say "I don't give a ****."

What is it about cabbage? I was told by two native Italians two different stories (not surprisingly). One was that since cabbage smells so strong while being cooked it has a strong negative connotation. The other is that "cavolo" sounds similar to another Italian word "cazzo" (look it up) and thus like "damn" becomes "darn," "cavolo" came to be a polite substitute for "cazzo." This latter explanation seems more probable. In fact, in 1930, Mussolini introduced a penal code (Codice Rocco) which made public cursing, including using the word “cazzo,” a punishable crime.

There is a scene early on in the film when Anna Magnani’s character, Pina, goes to see the priest to discuss her wedding the following day. Agostino, the priest’s assistant, is cooking cabbage soup on a heater. He opens the lid to stir the pot. “Cabbage soup,” he says. “I can tell,” she answers, making a pinched face. A moment later, the priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), enters and reprimands Agostino for cooking on the heater. “And cabbage, no less,” the priest complains.

Times were tough and food was scarce. A steady diet (and the smell) of cabbage soup would have been quite familiar to Roman audiences watching the film when it was first released. As noted above, Amidei and Fellini wrote their first draft in the kitchen, so it wouldn’t surprise me if those lines were written as the two writers held their noses against the odor of cabbage soup filling Fellini’s own kitchen.

I don't happen to think cabbage smells all that bad when it's cooking. Or maybe they've invented some new kind of less smelly cabbage nowadays. This soup is considered “peasant” food — which means it both suffices in hard times and satisfies in the best of times. It never grows old and never goes out of style. Like Rome itself. Like Rome: Open City.

As always, cook, watch, eat, and enjoy!

Minestra di cavolo (Italian Cabbage Soup)
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6 as a main course

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 leeks, thinly sliced, white part only
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 small dried red chile peppers, whole
1 yellow squash, sliced
1 zucchini, sliced
1 can diced tomatoes (16 ounces)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 small head green cabbage, shredded (about 1 1/2 - 2 lbs.)
6 cups water, or more if needed
1/4 cup Italian parsley, minced, for garnish
salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for accompaniment

Melt the butter and oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Sauté the leeks, garlic, squash, zucchini and dried chiles until softened. Do not let brown. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Stir.

Add tomatoes, bay leaf and thyme and continue to cook for another 3-5 minutes.

Add cabbage and enough water to just cover cabbage. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Bring to boil, then lower to a simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, for about 1 1/2 hours, until the vegetables are tender but have not lost their shape. Add a cup or more water as necessary.

Turn off heat. Add parsley and stir. Adjust seasonings. Serve in individual soup bowls, generously topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and some crusty bread.

Rome: Open City Review, by Bosley Crowther @ NY Times (1946)
Critic's Pick: Rome: Open City, by AO Scott @ NY Times Video (2011)
RAI short documentary on Roberto Rossellini @ YouTube
Criterion Collection Rome: Open City Page
Roberto Rossellini, by Hugo Salas @ Senses of Cinema

Rossellini's The War Trilogy (Rome: Open City, Paisan, Germany: Year Zero) Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray
Roberto Rossellini, by Peter Brunette
The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, by Tad Gallagher
Rome Open City: Roma citta aperta (BFI Film Classics), by David Forgacs
Fellini on Fellini

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