The European-made World War II drama Massacre in Rome depicts a 1944 incident during which the Third Reich killed 335 citizens in reprisal for a partisan attack that left about 30 German soldiers dead. The so-called “Ardeatine Massacre” carried sociopolitical implications extending beyond the war itself, since the Vatican was asked to intervene but refused to do so. Written and directed by George P. Cosmatos, who adapted a book by Robert Katz, Massacre in Rome is a serious attempt at cataloguing the myriad factors that led to the slaughter, although the process of dramatization led Cosmatos toward both oversimplification and turgidity. Regarding the first extreme, Cosmatos transformed historical figure Herbert Kappler, the German officer tasked with organizing the reprisal, into a cinematic protagonist, which necessitated some sanding of edges. In the movie, Kappler—as played by Richard Burton—is a pragmatist who urges his commanders to exercise restraint not out of any great wellspring of human compassion, but because he knows that an excessive response will energize opposition among the Italian citizenry. Historical accounts suggest that the real Kappler had no such reservations about following the company line.
Regarding the second extreme, that of turgidity, Cosmatos created a composite character, Father Pietro Antonelli—portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni—to represent the tricky relationship between the church and Italian partisans. Many scenes involving the priest devolve into pretentious debates about morality. Worse, the priest ultimately serves no discernible narrative function—despite fretting a lot, he never impacts the action in a meaningful way. Given these problems, Massacre in Rome is a middling film even though it’s also a sober undertaking with terrific production values. At his best, Cosmatos conveys a vision of the Third Reich’s high command as a dysfunctional family, with insane leader Adolf Hitler (who is never shown onscreen) creating a top-down climate of paranoia and savagery while more rational people eye the inevitable future after Hitler’s power structure collapses. Marginalized in this treatment of the story are the people affected by the massacre, because Cosmatos doesn’t spend enough time with the partisans or with the common people of Rome. That said, Cosmatos and producer Carlo Ponti honor the dead with a closing text crawl featuring the names of the victims.
Massacre in Rome: FUNKY