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The New International, December 1946


Meyer Schapiro

A Note on The Open City

Some Comments on Farrell’s Review


From New International, Vol.12 No.10, December 1946, pp.311-313.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In his article on The Open City in the August number of The New International, James Farrell has tried to show that the essential content of this film is the new conception of the Leader in the Stalinist party; “it establishes the leadership principle” and by various subtle devices inspires the audience to “trust and follow the leader.” More than once Farrell insists that the film neither contains nor implies a political program; the political void is filled by the image of the Leader, the Stalinist functionary or agent. This conclusion, which is built on a detailed analysis of the story, does not seem to me to represent correctly the political content of the film, or to correspond to Italian conditions, at least as we know them through the press. It is true that the classical action of a Marxist party, – leadership in class struggles, the awakening of revolutionary consciousness in the workers – is not evoked here. We should be surprised indeed if this were the theme of an Italian film in 1945. But it is no less evident that The Open City does convey a political line, a line which is fateful for the European future and should be recognized for what it is, wherever it appears. It was the Stalinist Resistance line for Italy during the crucial period of the “Liberation” and has its parallels in other countries. The Open City, to describe it briefly, is an exemplary account of the collaboration of the Communist Party, the Italian people and the Catholic Church against the national enemy: Nazi Germany. Italian fascism is almost wholly ignored. There are three martyrs to the common cause, each representing one of these active elements: the working class woman, Pina, who initiates the bread riot spontaneously, without instructions from above – she avows, in fact, that she doesn’t know what will come of it all; ignorant of socialism, completely unpolitical, she is, however, religious and looks forward to a church marriage by a Partisan priest; the second martyr is the Communist, Manfredi, who functions as a member of the Committee of National Liberation, carrying out secret instructions of sabotage, but has no contact with the people; the third and last martyr is the priest Pietro, – with his death the picture comes to an end. His execution is witnessed by the children of his school, self-organized militants led by a crippled boy, Romoletto. This little terrorist wished to throw a bomb into a crowd of his own people in order to destroy the SS men who question them. The last shot is of these same children, representatives of the Italian future, returning to the city; the horizon is dominated by the high dome of St. Peter’s. They will go back to their church school where they have played soccer under the guidance of the good priest Pietro.

This collaboration with the Church constitutes, in my opinion, a basic theme of the film. It is carried through in many details and even assumes the pattern of a familiar Christian legend. In the conclusion, always vital for the effect of a film or play, the two martyrs, Pietro and Manfredi, recall the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in Rome. Like Paul, Manfredi is the energetic, uncompromising apostle, who engaged in world propaganda for the new religion; like Paul, he began as a persecutor of the church, and like Paul, he dies under another name, a more Christian name than his original one. The priest, Pietro, has made out for him a fake passport as Giovanni Episcopo (Bishop), and it is under this suggestive name (borne also by a character of D’Annunzio) that the Gestapo registers his martyr’s death. I may be permitted in this context to carry the mythical pattern further and observe that just as Saint Peter was crucified upside down, so the priest Pietro is shot from behind.

Church Presented Favorably

The Catholic Church is presented here from the viewpoint of a friendly spectator who does not know too well the dogmas, hierarchy, ritual, temporal interests and miseries of this powerful institution; he sees only the modest priest who derives from his love of Christ good will toward the poor, hatred of injustice and readiness to help those who need him. The sacraments appear as flexible instruments at the disposal of human wants, rather than as magical rites administered under fixed conditions. The priest hears Pina’s confession while she accompanies him on the street when he is on a mission of the Resistance, as one human being with another. The rite of extreme unction is acted out as a ruse to deceive the Gestapo and to save Romoletto whose bomb might be discovered by the enemy searching the house. The relations of the individual priest to the people conceal the broader relations of the church to the whole community. The audience is given the feeling that the church is tolerant, human, warm, adaptable, superior to dogma and rite. Nothing in the film indicates that Pietro is an exceptional priest, like Silone’s Don Benedetto; he is nowhere contrasted with priests who compromise or who side with the oppressors. Thus the people are prepared for support of collaboration with a clerical party. There is in this film a series of crude moral contrasts which should also be noted as part of its collaborationist thought. The religious woman, Pina, the real heroine, is not only a believer, but conforms to the church teachings about manners and dress. If she has been living in sin, that is because of the unsettled war conditions; she is about to be married in the church. Opposed to her is the mistress of the Communist Manfredi and ultimately his betrayer, through a German spy, Ingrid. The latter, a sinister figure, resembles in her features and action the cruel females of Beardsley and the literature of the 1890’s, the vampire or Salome of that period. She is a Lesbian and a hater of men. Her political role issues from a psychological deformity. The reward for her service is not money or love, but morphine. Similarly, her Gestapo chief is a homosexual animated by a cold vanity and sadism. The struggle between this German agent and Manfredi is pictured as one of racial psychologies; the Gestapo man says: If Manfredi will hold out under torture, then there is no difference between the blood of a master-race and of a slave-race, – which is impossible. Manfredi’s death is therefore a sign of Italian superiority. It is also a victory of the normal human being over the sexually perverted and loathsome. The characterizations of the antagonists are not of representatives of classes as in the older Communist films, but of national types as moral opposites. Even the two figures from the German camp who arc not Nazis are inferior to the Italians: the Austrian deserter, unable to face the expected torture, which Manfredi endures, hangs himself; and the German captain, who alone dares to criticize the Nazi aspirations and brutality as a hopeless failure, turns up at the end to finish the priest when the Italian firing squad balks in its duty. The polarity: German-Italian, is stronger, more decisive, than the differences among Italians.

Farrell’s Interpretation Rejected

A last point – the character of Manfredi as a leader. Unlike the priest, he enters into no intimate relations with the people; nowhere in the film does he make decisions for them or do they learn from him or respond to him politically. An Italian friend observes that in the period with which the film deals, under the Badoglio regime, there were no important Stalinist leaders in Rome, only agents and minor party functionaries. Togliatti was still in Moscow. To picture Communism as a principle of personal leadership in this situation would have been impossible.

Leadership of a kind there is in the film. Certain individuals stand out by their greater courage and initiative, as they do in reality; and there is also the obvious dramatic device of isolating and focussing on individuals as representatives of various groups. But we will scarcely conclude from this that the aim or effect of the film is to establish “the leadership principle.” The fact that in answer to Pina’s discouragement after a domestic brawl, her lover points to Manfredi as the man with the key to the future, indicates the prestige of the Communists and the low level of political awareness among the Italian people at that moment; it hardly warrants Farrell’s interpretation.

Manfredi is more clearly, however, an example of the readiness of the CP to cooperate with reactionary groups in a common front. He quickly approves Pina’s desire for a church wedding by a Partisan priest; and his own death is the result of his loyally to Badoglio’s generals, whose names he will not divulge to the Germans. The whole tragic story, the fate of Pina and Pietro, grows out of Manfredi’s role of liaison with the Military Junta. The party line of collaboration with the church and ultimately with the Christian Democrats, we have seen, is well expressed in the triple martyrdom. This line entails the acceptance of the Catholic schools and the masking and reshaping of the familiar face of the Catholic ally. The church becomes for the moment the friend of the poor and helper of all “who fight for justice and liberty,” to quote the words of the priest, who gives his blessing to the martyred Communist. The Vatican Concordat [with] Mussolini, its support of Fascism and Franco, are shamefully forgotten.

I have assumed up to this point that The Open City is a Stalinist work; but I am not sure that this is correct. In Italy and France, during the war, the Resistance movements included many non-Stalinists who respected the CP as a powerful militant apparatus and the Catholic Church as a noble ally; the lower clergy more than once saved the lives of underground fighters. The ideas of the Popular Front came to life again spontaneously, in a patriotic form, among the middle class, even where the Stalinists were weak. It is conceivable that The Open City is the product of such anti-Fascist artists in the Resistance; they were politically naive carriers of Stalinist notions and tendencies who sometimes came to these less through direct instruction than through their social role and their relationship to the events in their reaction against Fascism. In their experience the Communists were neither proletarian revolutionists nor agents of Stalin, but courageous fighters against the common Nazi enemy. There were many who sincerely believed that the unity of the Resistance would be maintained after the war, even if under CP leadership. In the film the preponderance of Pina and the priest, humanly, dramatically and artistically, is such that I supposed at first that the whole was the work of men nearer to the people and the priest, somewhat in Silone’s sense, than to Stalinism, although certain touches suggested a Stalinist hand. And this, indeed, is the impression one gets from reading the reviews in Italian and American magazines. They stress the tragic quality of the film and the veracity of the image of Rome and its people among whom Pina and the priest stand out above all. They make it difficult to accept Farrell’s idea that the deliberate aim (and effect) of the film is to insinuate emotionally the principle of totalitarian leadership. It is incredible that an organization directly under Communist control, aiming to convey this principle, could have produced such a film, which is not only incomparably better than the recent Russian films and the Italian Fascist ones, but is free from the stylizations and absurd automatisms inevitable in party propaganda. It would be interesting to know just who is behind this effort. It is no isolated work; other groups, perhaps including Communists, have been formed in Italy to create similar realistic films of the Resistance and the “Liberation,” using unprofessional actors, as in the great Soviet films of twenty years ago. In any case, whether The Open City was produced by Stalinists as party propaganda or by an independent artistic group, with various political tendencies, united in a common front, its essential message of the solidarity of the Communists and the church, both idealized through heroic individuals, is politically more significant than one would discover from Farrell’s article, which makes the new cult of the leader the central meaning of the film.

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