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As an observer of contemporary Italian culture, I have been struck by the recent outpouring of texts and films on the subject of the Shoah, evidence of what Fabio Girelli-Carasi sees as the belated emergence of a Jewish discourse in the Italy of today. During my years as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was aware of a distinct reluctance on the part of writers and directors to confront this chapter in Italian history. Of course, there was Giorgio Bassani, but he was “ghettoized” by the intellectual Left for a perceived lack of ideological engagement – a failure to represent the possibility of an activist response to Fascism and the residual injustices of the postwar period. I was dimly aware of the achievements of Primo Levi, but that awareness was clouded by a kind of respectful reticence, almost a sense of embarrassment, about his writings on the part of the critical establishment. This discomfort took the form of taxonomic indecision – how to characterize this body of writing? Was it literature or history, autobiography or legal brief – in other words, how do we label and accommodate the text of witness? Such unease, of course, reflected a far deeper problem – the Italian hesitance to tell the Holocaust story at all, the reluctance to face what the eminent Italian director, Ettore Scola, would call “a passage little frequented, and hardly edifying, of our History.”
It is 1945, Rome has recently been liberated, and Roberto Rossellini joins forces with a scriptwriter, Sergio Amidei, to make a film about the courage and suffering of Romans under the recent Nazi occupation. They face every imaginable obstacle to the realization of their project: a war-torn economy, reluctant producers, lack of raw materials (celluloid was especially scarce), and a film industry wedded to the aesthetics of escape (see Fig. 6). Vaudeville stars Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi are persuaded to join the cast, despite the appallingly severe shortage of funds to meet their salary demands. Rossellini hires Federico Fellini, Fabrizi to lower his price. Personal upheavals threaten to derail the production at every turn. Amidei and his girlfriend, Maria Michi (who plays Marina), break up and reconcile any number of times; Magnani's stormy love affair with the young and unreliable Massimo reaches crisis level in mid-shooting; and her son is afflicted with a dire malady. Producers come and go, plagued by inadequate resources or daunted by the novelty of the project. After a sneak preview, a noted distributor is shocked and pronounces the film unmarketable. In one of the many serendipities that mark the birth of Open City, an American soldier named Rod Geiger discovers that Rossellini has tapped into the power supply used to illuminate the G.I. dance hall next door to the studio. When Geiger realizes that he has stumbled onto a movie set, his anger gives way to fascination and he gallantly offers to distribute the finished product in America.