David Forgacs' monograph on 'Rome Open City' is as thorough an examination of a major cinematic milestone as you could hope for. Roberto Rossellini's breakthrough film, the story of Resistance activity during the German Occupation of Rome 1943-44, was conceived, made and released in the immediate aftermath of the Liberation, and was exultantly acclaimed as a new kind of cinema, where documentary-style authenticity (largely non-professional cast, basis in recent history, real locations etc.) were seen as an answer to the lies of Fascist film in particular, and the illusions of commercial cinema in general, heralding the Golden Age of Neo-Realism.
Forgacs takes as his starting point Italo Calvino's remark that neo-realist works about the resistance were not 'direct representations of events in reality' but 'textual elaborations of already represented events'. Although the major stories depicted in the film - the street murder of a pregnant woman, the torture of a communist resistant, the execution of a dissident priest - were based on real events, they had already been mythologised in oral accounts, newspaper articles, diaries, paintings, sculptures etc., which representations Rossellini synthesised in his film.
More damagingly, the myth of Resistance offered in 'Rome Open City', which Forgacs suggests was necessary to displace collective guilt and anger as well as provide Romans with a narrative of unity and memory, evades or distorts the more troubling aspects of the Occupation - the natives' 20-year complicity with the Fascist regime; the collaboration of the Fascist police and their network of spies with the brutalities of the Germans; the silences and compromises of the Church. The deportations of the Jews, for instance, are not even mentioned. The 'patriotic myth' was also a way for Rossellini to atone for his own Fascist past, having directed three features for the army.
This is not to suggest that Forgacs simply demolishes the film, which was immensely influential and is still the director's most accessible work. After all, Rossellini himself later disowned the more manipulative and melodramatic aspects of thw work, which were incompatible with his more austere and viewer-challenging later films. By offering a detailed historical and cultural context; by recreating the conditions of the film's conception, production and contemporary reception; and by analysing the film's techniques and themes (most brilliantly in his discussion of urban space, the different uses made of it by occupiers and resisters), as well as the 'polluted' (Rossellini's own phrase) ideology that informs the pretensions to objectivity (in particular the demonising of 'bad' sexuality), Forgacs replaces the monolithically 'important' and 'truthful' film of legend with something much more complex, contradictory and intellectually satisfying.