Visions of Rome

Rome has been the setting for many films, from historical epics like Julius Caesar to romantic dramas like Three Coins in the Fountain. Area moviegoers recently had the chance to see two vastly different movies that were filmed on location in Rome in the ten years after World War II.

Rome Open City, which was shown at the Detroit Film Theatre on December 19, 2015, was a documentary-style 1945 drama that showed how Italians survived Nazi occupation in the closing days of World War II.

Eight years later, in 1953, a much different view of Rome was on display in the romantic comedy Roman Holiday, which screened at the Redford Theatre on November 6 and 7, 2015.

Both movies showed Rome as an important political symbol. In Open City, it was a major European city whose occupation by the Germans helped prop up the fast fading power of the Nazis. In Roman Holiday, the city was one of several selected stops on a goodwill tour by the princess of an unnamed European country.

Escape and anonymity were important themes of both films, with Rome providing a complex setting of passageways and private rooms. Major characters did not want to be revealed, and other major characters tried to help them, for their own reasons, against the changing backdrop of this constantly active city.

Fleeting romance was also a shared theme. In Open City, Francesco Grandjacquet and Anna Magnani shared a poignant engagement before Magnani was killed. Roman Holiday featured a warm surge of romance between Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, before they were forced apart by their professional roles.

The contrasts between Open City and Roman Holiday showed how a military occupation could sap much of the life out of a city. But you also saw how a city could rebuild itself after troubled times.

I’m sure that the producer and director of Roman Holiday, William Wyler, had much cooperation from local officials in creating a movie that is often a tourist’s view of Rome, with bustling plazas, sparkling fountains, historical ruins, and grand architecture.

Roman Holiday has some political overtones that showed how postwar Europe was trying to forge a feeling of community that would prevent a recurrence of the tragedies of war that were so honestly depicted in Open City.

And who better to symbolize that feeling than Audrey Hepburn? She spent much of her youth in Nazi-occupied Belgium, but emerged as an internationally appealing actress in an Oscar-winning performance that was also her first leading role.

As you watch her in Roman Holiday, and hear her talk in general about peace and cooperation, you can’t help but feel that she had a small calming effect on the Cold War tensions of that era, because what she portrayed on screen rang with a sincerity that could only be based in real life.

Both films ended with images of individuals moving quietly away from significant experiences into an uncertain future.

In Open City, a group of young boys, symbolizing the future, walk away from the execution of a priest, with the broad expanse of Rome spreading before them.

In Roman Holiday, the footsteps of Gregory Peck have an expressive echo as he walks slowly across a spacious, palatial hall where he just participated in a group interview of Audrey Hepburn. For just a few seconds more, he tries to hold on to a magical moment that he—and the audience—knows will never be repeated.


Detroit movie history repeated itself on December 19, 2015 with the showing of Open City at the DFT and the screening of the 1946 Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life at the Redford Theatre.

Both films were also showing in Detroit on January 1, 1947. Open City was in its second week at the art film Cinema Theatre (now the Gem Theatre), and It’s a Wonderful Life had just opened at the Palms theater (now The Fillmore Detroit).

Also that day, many Detroit neighborhood theaters were showing The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart. The Big Sleep returns to Detroit on January 22 and 23, 2016 when it plays at the Redford.

Detroit Free Press, January 1, 1947

Detroit Free Press, January 1, 1947

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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