Sexuality in Neorealism

In the previous post, I discussed the vignette in Paisan where the soldier reminisces of the girls of Rome in the past,  who were “all happy and laughing and fresh, full of color, beautiful,” who he now believes have become prostitutes (Bondanella 74). In these films, expressions of female sexuality are attributed to deviant behavior, either exhibited by characters like Marina in Rome, Open City, who ultimately betrays her Italian ex-boyfriend, and women who have been stripped of their “femininity” by war. Another disturbing attribute of these films is the homophobia pervasive throughout Rome, Open City and Germany, Year Zero.

The story in Rome, Open City does not end with Pina’s death. That pivotal scene marks the end of Act I. In Act II, the audience is exposed to a much more negative portrayal of women. Francesca, Pina’s fiance, escapes soon after the shooting, and the Germans continue to hunt for the Resistance fighters. Marina (Maria Michi), Manfredi’s ex-mistress is tempted by a German officer, Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), who “seduces Marina with expensive fur coats, presents, and drugs” (Bondanella 67). Marina ultimately betrays Manfredi in a drugged state and the Resistance fighter is killed, dying as a martyr, never spilling any secrets to his German torturers. Marina is presented as the complete opposite of Pina. Pina, or Anna Magnani in general, can be seen as depicting the new Italian woman. Landy writes, “Magnani’s ample body, disheveled look, husky voice, and passionate acting are indicative of a departure from prevailing conceptions of feminity” (91). Conversely, Marina works as a showgirl and is attracted to expensive fur coats and gifts of free drugs. Her job “suffices to pay for her silk stockings and cigarettes alone” while the “plain, unpretentious Pina, on the other hand, is a reverse diva who dresses in bobby socks and allows herself the luxury of silk stockings only once, on her wedding day” (Marcus 38).The deceitful Marina seems to be the fallen version of the previous femmes fatales of Fascist Italian cinema who lived by no discernable laws and destroyed the men who were attracted to her. While these women were vivacious, sexual, and lively in silent and Fascist cinema, Marina’s frail and peaked exterior speak to the failures of these roles in the previous eras. She seems to be unable to deny herself any desires, including the temptation of Ingrid, who is just using her for information about Manfredi.

However, although Marina is presented as the deviant, sexual woman when compared with Magnani’s motherly and modest character, Pina is still ultimately depicted as impulsive and irrational. Her death ends up being completely in vain; this fiance escapes moments after she is gunned down. Robert Rushing indicates such “traumatic ruptures” are depicted as being caused by the expressions of female sexuality. He argues, “Marcello in Open City is left an orphan when his mother, Pina, pregnant out of wedlock, foolishly dashes into the street after her lover” (Rushing 105). Likewise, in De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us, a young boy is awoken to the horrors of adultlife–when his mother leaves him and his father for a new lover. This throws the family into the depths of despair (Rushing).

One of the things I found most disturbing in Rossellini’s War Trilogy is the rampant homophobia. If Marina presents a woman battling her inability to suppress her desire, the Germans depicted in Rome, Open City represent, for the filmmaker, the lowest and basest depths to which humans can stoop. They have absolute no qualms about the murders and deception they are constantly committing; a Nazi does express doubts about the inferiority of Italians while drunkenly chattering one night, but when he sobers up the following day, he returns to killing them with no hesitation. To demonstrate this absence of morality, Rossellini chooses to portray the Nazis as a group of gays and lesbians. As mentioned earlier, Ingrid is shown callously manipulating drug-addicted Marina through both her desire for narcotics and sex. Lesbianism is depicted as one of the darkest depths of moral depravity. Similarly, Rossellini makes a complete mockery out of the male Nazi officer who is so stridently concerned with extracting secrets from Manfredi. His casting choice for this character runs parallel with the casting of Ingrid; Rossellini chooses gay Austrian dancer Harry Feist, whom Rossellini hated and whom Anna Magnani labeled “a big queer'” (Quandt 14).

In Germany Year Zero, a young Germany boy navigates postwar Germany and faces the horrible effect of fascism and fascist thinking when established in the minds of children. While walking around the city, the boy encounters a former teacher, who is portrayed as lecherous, creepy older man. Quandt writes, the film “succumbs to the shorthand Rossellini employed in Rome, Open City, in its portrait of the den of iniquity in which the homosexual-pedophiliac teacher resides, its languishing women concerned with the right shade of nail polish, its men with the procuring of young flesh” (Quandt 18). Where Italians are presented as nice people whose failures are their inability to act, the Germans are portrayed as skimming the waters of the utmost sexual depravity. Rossellini’s treatment of female sexuality may be more subtle, but the homophobia is a glaring flaw in



Bondanella, Peter. A History of Italian Cinema. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009. Print.

Landy, Marcia. “Diverting Cliches: Femininity, Masculinity, Melodrama, and Neorealism in Open City.” Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City. Ed. Gottlieb, Sidney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Rushing, Robert. “De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us: Neorealist Cinema and Sexual Difference.” Studies in European Cinema 6.2&3 (2009): 97-111. EBSCOHost. 27 Nov. 2010.

Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. Print.

Quandt, James. “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy: Myth and Manipulation.” Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy. (2009): 11-19. DVD.

NOTE: The Quandt  source above is from a booklet of essays in the 2009 Criterion Boxset of Rossellini’s films. I was unsure of how to cite such a source.


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