Women and War in the Films of Roberto Rossellini

The director most frequently attributed to the emergence and vast international popularity of neorealist films was Roberto Rossellini. His World War II centered trilogy of films, which includes Roma, città aperta (1945), Paisà (1946), and Germania anno zero (1948), explore the impact WWII had on the lives of people from all around the globe.

Roma, città aperta is perhaps the most famous neorealist film and is frequently championed as the premier example of the genre. The story involves a group of Italian Resistance fighters, including men, women, children, and priests, who must face war and martyrdom. The plot concerns, “Manfredi, a Resistance leader; Francesco, a printer for an underground newspaper; Pina, his fiancee and organizer of the neighborhood women; Marcello, her activist son; and Don Pietro, priest and committed Partisan” (Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism) and the German occupiers who are after them. Marina, the very epitome of a femme fatale, is constantly tempted to betray her ex-lover Manfredi to the Germans, by way of a lesbian German officer (I will discuss the treatment of sexuality in the next post).  Following an attack orchestrated by the neighborhood children, German officers arrest Pina’s lover, Francesco, carrying him away on the back of a truck. As Pina runs after him, she is shot dead in the middle of the street by Francesco’s captors, as her son looks on.

I will surpass the story of the priest and the male Resistance fighters and instead solely on the female characters of Pina and Marina. Rossellini uses his female characters to show the depths to which war has plummeted Italian life and femininity. Peter Bondanella argues the film, “so completely reflected the moral and psychological atmosphere of the moment it was created–1945, the minute the war ended, when the reconstruction of Italy had not yet begun–that it stands as a kind of symbol for the period itself” (67).

Likewise, the scene (pictured above) in which Pina is gunned down in front of her children, lying exposed in the middle of the street on which her lover is being hauled away, has become the prevailing symbol of both the film itself, and Italian cinema in general. Therefore, that one pivotal scene can be considered one of the most important images of wartime Italy. This is not a simple hyperbole; Millicent Marcus recounts the ubiquitous use of this scene throughout the years, remarking, “The strongest argument for the iconic power of this scene is the commemorative stamp, issued by the Italian government to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of WWII, which featured the image of Pina’s death as the defining emblem of war” (“Pina’s Pregnancy, traumatic realism, and the After-life of Open City”).  Italy joins the many other countries we have studied in class who use the suffering of women during wartime as a symbol of the country at war.

This heartbreaking scene was in fact inspired by an actual event covered in Italian newspapers. In March of 1943, an Italian woman, Maria Teresa Gullace, participated in a protest, led by thousands of women, for the release of the men Germans had taken captive.

[Gullace’s] husband Girolamo was one of the men who were earmarked for forced labor. They were extremely poor…she had to hold up her stockings with string…Teresa Gullace tried to throw a parcel that contained bread to her husband. An SS guard aimed his Mauser and shot her in the head. Her husband cried out from the window, Teresa! Teresa! He was helpless and his anguish was etched on his contorted face. Their son remained motionless frozen by the horror of seeing his mother dead before him (Gallo 179).

Why are women like Pina so often used as the ideal example of the victims of war? Peter Bondanella draws attention to the Pina’s revealed stockings as she lies murdered in the street, “underlining the obscenity of her untimely death” (57). This obscenity of war calls to mind a loss of innocence, just as patriarchal constructs regarded the loss of “innocence” of women as wives, mothers, daughters, and lovers as one of the worst aspects of wartime.

This theme is drawn upon once more in Rossellini’s second film in the war trilogy, Paisà. The film consists of short vignettes which depict poignant interactions amongst Italians and Allied forces, mainly Americans, during the war. Two of the vignettes concern women and their “loss of innocence”. The opening short depicts a group of American soldiers travelling through a Sicilian village, where a young girl is chosen to help the soldiers through the German occupied territory, navigating amongst a minefield. They end up in a cave, where the young Sicilian is left alone with one of the Americans, neither of which speak the other’s language. However, they overcome the language barrier, and as the American soldier whips out his lighter to show the young girl a picture of his sister, the light is seen by a German soldier and the American is shot dead. The girl attempts to leave the cave, where the other Americans have arrived, cursing the missing girl who appears to have shot their fellow soldier. The young girl tries to gain revenge for the soldier she barely know, but at the end of the vignette, is shot and killed by the same German soldiers that killed the American (Bondanella 73).

The third vignette of the film stars the same actress, Maria Michi, who played Marina in Roma, città aperta. She appears as Francesa, a prostitute working in Rome after the Allied forces had liberated the capital city. She meets a drunk American soldier, Fred, and takes him back to her small, dark apartment, never even exchanging names. As he lies intoxicated on Francesca’s bed, “his cynical remark that ‘Rome’s full of girls like you’ leads him to recall the more innocent days during the liberation of Rome when everything seemed possible and when ‘girls were all happy and laughing and fresh, full of color, beautiful… And now it’s all different. You should’ve seen the one I knew–her name was Francesca…” (Bondanella 74). Rossellini employs a non-Realist technique and cuts into Fred’s flashback, where he meets a beautiful young girl on liberation day and uses her phone in her clean, expansive house. Back in actual time, in his drunken stupor, Fred has not realized the very girl sits on the bed beside him, and passes out. Francesca leaves her address, going home to restore herself to her former “full of color” self. While she waits, however, the soldier never returns, throwing her address into the street, as it is “only the address of a whore” (Bondanella 75). Rossellini’s films paint one of the horrible results of war as the displacement of women out of their typical roles and into ones of desperation and despair. In the next blog, I will look at the treatment of sexuality in these same films.


Bondanella, Peter. The Films of Roberto Rossellini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print

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

Gallo, Patrick J. Love and Country: The Italian Resistance. University Press of America, 2003. Print.

Marcus, Millicent. “Pina’s Pregnancy, traumatic realism, and the After-life of Open City.” Italica. 22.12 (2008). The Free Library. Web. 28 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.



Pina 1Pina 2 / Pina 3 /


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s