“She's ashamed of us because she says she's and actress while we're just poor working women,” Pin (Anna Magnani) tells Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) on their first encounter. She is describing her sister, Lauretta (Carla Rovere), and the contrast between them introduces the series of binary oppositions that will structure Roma città apertatheatricality versus reality; the elite versus the popular; the artificial versus the natural; Fascism versus the Resistance; Germans versus Italians; jazz and drugs versus communism and Catholicism; sickness versus health; homosexuality versus heterosexuality. These moralizing polarities also drive the film's plot: Manfredi's former lover Marina (Maria Michi) is Lauretta's friend, and Lauretta and Manfredi are in Marina' apartement when Marina makes the phone call that betrays him.
Contemporary reviewers in Italy, France, and the United States mostly heralded Rossellini's film of the Italian Resistance as a revolutionary breakthrough: “the first great resistance film to come out of Europe - perhaps the best picture Italy has ever made,” “the classic of our generation,” “the greatest film I have ever seen.” For viewers half a century later, however, the list of antinomies with which I began is likely to discredit itself as it unfolds, the later terms undercutting the legitimacy of the earlier one. The critic for the Communist New Masses may have rejoiced that “the homosexuality of the immaculately booted and uniformed torturer is posed in inevitable defeat against the solid masculinity of his opponent.”