Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This detail-oriented examination of two days of infamy in occupied Rome reminds us most of Rene Clement's Is Paris Burning?: The 1944 massacre of hundreds of Romans at the caves of Via Ardeatine is for Italians an unforgettable atrocity. Robert Katz' talky script shows the complicated negotiations that took place between the German commanders and the Italian Fascist bureaucrats in charge of the city. In addition to that, the German Colonel in charge of the killings carries on a multi-layered philosophical discussion with a priest who tries but cannot get anyone to listen to reason - neither the Germans nor his own Vatican superiors.
The Carlo Ponti production was an early film by George Pan Cosmatos, well known as the director of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone. We can understand why the film didn't receive a wider distribution stateside: In the better original track all of the big-name English actors are dubbed into Italian, even though they mostly play Germans. Without their distinctive voices, talents like Richard Burton and Leo McKern are robbed of much of their appeal. When both Italians and Germans are dubbed in English for the export copy, the whole show sounds phony.
Partisans use an improvised bomb to massacre 33 German SS soldiers on the streets of Rome, and the call goes out for retribution - ten Italians for every German. Father Pietro Antonelli (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lt. Colonel Herbert Kappler (Richard Burton) share a love of art but fall on opposite sides of the executions, which are ordered to take place within twenty-four hours. When SS commander Col. Dollman (John Steiner) refuses, General Kurt Maezler (Leo McKern) gives the barbaric order to Kappler, who chooses to implement it with the utmost precision.
It's easy -- too easy -- to find parallels between the events of March 23-24 in Rome and the experience of modern troops occupying foreign nations. To hasten the liberation of Rome, partisan fighters organize an ambush on the Via Rasella and use a bomb to blow an entire column of marching SS troops to bits. Outraged calls to raze the neighborhood and slaughter 50 Italians for every German are scaled back by Berlin: No demolition and a kill ratio of only ten to one -- the Nazi idea of restraint. Some of the partisans wore uniforms and thus label their attack a military operation. The Germans dismiss them as terrorists and decree that the rules of war do not apply.
Massacre in Rome is a docudrama with an inordinate amount of philosophizing. Richard Burton's Colonel debates with Marcello Mastroianni's priest and anyone else who will listen. He would seem to be a sensitive man, until the time comes to carry out his orders. Leo McKern's buffoonish general plays piano at a decadent party, which director George Pan Cosmatos intercuts with a partisan being tortured at Gestapo headquarters. Marcello Mastroianni's church superior Father Pancrazio (Robert Harris) relays the Pope's instructions - keep the peace and comfort the suffering, but don't interfere in the reprisals because the alternative to the Nazis are godless Communists and anarchists. The Fascist Chief of Police is likewise abandoned by Mussolini bureaucrats interested only in surviving the coming liberation.
The regular German Army and the SS refuse to get involved in the massacre, with an eye to the liberation but also aware that Italy is not far-off Poland, where atrocities can be committed with relative anonymity. Given only twenty hours to assemble and liquidate 335 victims in a way that won't ignite riots, Colonel Kappler orders his own staff -- officers with little experience in killing -- to serve as executioners. This part of the picture could be called Kappler's List in that the Colonel must scramble to find enough candidates to fill his quota. Rome has only a few prisoners on death row so Kappler adds those awaiting sentencing for capital crimes. As time runs out he pulls in practically every prisoner already in custody, with Jews heading the list. The Fascist police chief frets for hours to come up with a list of 50 political expendables, and finishes a few minutes past his deadline. But Kappler has already instructed his troops to empty out the local prisons, with orders to take the Italian guards should they resist.
All this horrible efficiency eventually ends with the mass killing at the Via Ardeatine Grotto, some man-made caves 2.5 kilometers from Kappler's own headquarters. The sequence avoids direct sensationalism but isn't all that impressive either; the images never confront the enormity of the crime. A surprise ending also has little impact, as we've already guessed the identity of a last-minute addition to the victim list. Massacre in Rome is a sincere effort to dramatize one of the war's more visible atrocities, and by and large it succeeds.
Mastroianni and Burton are convincing enough, although Burton has the edge with a character making dark decisions under pressure. It's always interesting to see how Europeans present their war experience in films, but somewhat frustrating when marketing requires that lead German roles be played by Englishmen. The language confusion has other ill effects. Because the Germans speak Italian, they never seem 'German' enough. And on the all-English track everyone sounds false. The production is adequate but seems to thin out at the end, when limited camera angles cannot hide the lack of hundreds of extras. Only a handful of trucks are seen, and we don't really believe they're full of Italian prisoners.
According to English author Sir Christopher Frayling, the Via Ardeatine massacre was the historical inspiration for the mass killing of Mexican revolutionaries and their families in Sergio Leone's Duck You Sucker, 1971.
NoShame's Massacre in Rome is an attractive show on DVD. The enhanced transfer is from original elements; the color scheme tends to lean a little toward greenish tints. The film has Italian mono and English stereo tracks so viewers can choose which star will speak in his native tongue. It's too bad nobody thought to cobble a hybrid track combining Italian with German, just for verisimilitude.
Disc one has two trailers (although the English one uses an Italian track as well) and a poster and still gallery. Disc two has interviews with the late director Cosmatos, cameraman Marcello Gotti and an archived interview with Marcello Mastroianni. Equally interesting are three lengthy interview featurettes about the true events of the massacre, with two real-life partisans and historian Sandro Portelli. An attractive liner booklet contains excellent essays on the film and its makers written by Richard Harland Smith.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Massacre in Rome rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Excellent Italian (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), English (Dolby Digital 2.0)
Supplements: Introduction by Director of Photography Marcello Gatti, Italian & English trailers; Poster and Still Gallery; Interviews with Gatti, Director Cosmatos, Marcello Mastroianni, real-life Partisan Mario Fiorentini, real-life Partisan Rosario Bentivegna, historian Sandro Portelli
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 27, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson