Three POWs during the second World War — one Russian (Sergey Bondarchuk), one English (Leo Genn) and one American (Peter Baldwin) — have managed to escape the camp they’ve been held in. They’re hiding out in Rome, but the city is occupied by the Nazis, leaving them in constant danger of being caught.
Despite their own cultural differences and the unfortunate nature of their current situation, these men treat each other with fondness, for they have all been fighting in the Allied forces.
With the help of a group brave men and women who transport them to their new hiding place, the three men are taken in by a beautiful, young Italian woman (Giovanna Ralli) who disguised herself as a nun to help them. But these men don’t just want to hide out until someone comes to save them. They’re desperate to find and rejoin their respective armies.
Their trouble doesn’t end with finding their former armies, either. Esperia, the woman who has taken them in, is in a relationship with a Communist (Renato Balducci) who doesn’t approve of her helping the men because he fears for her safety. Tensions begin to boil between the men themselves, too, as time passes.
Italian director Roberto Rossellini directs 1960’s Era notte a Roma, known in English as Escape by Night. This little-known wartime drama, which never got a proper release in the U.S. during its initial big-screen run, clocks in at 133 minutes if you watch it on Netflix; 156 minutes if you can find it on DVD. (I watched Netflix’s version.)
The film opens with newsreel-style footage and narration regarding POWs who wandered the Italian countryside looking for asylum. The narrator seems to have experienced this first-hand, and it sounds like he was an officer himself. Any Italian could face death for helping POWs, since Rome was under Nazi occupation.
The struggle to keep the POWs safe is amplified by the culture and language clashes. One of the three men speaks in Spanish when he tries to communicate with Esperia, which of course only leads to more confusion. In one scene he is trying to say that he wants hot tea, and uses the Spanish word “té,” which Esperia translates as meaning “thee,” and thinks that he’s trying to assault her! It’s a miracle the men were even able to get to their hiding place safely.
The POWs and their struggles aren’t the only focus of Era notte a Roma. Their hardships are given plenty of screen time, but the film shows the general difficulties of the war as well — the struggles the Italians faced just to stay alive while Rome was occupied. The film really brings to life just how risky it was for them to help anyone, and how difficult it was just to stay afloat themselves. Esperia disguises herself as a nun just so she can leave the city to get food.
Era notte a Roma isn’t the most action-packed World War II film but it is very good and does have a number of high-drama moments. It fills its time pretty well even though it is over two hours long, and it weaves a captivating tale of how multiple character cope with the war. This somewhat-forgotten Rossellini film deserves a lot more attention than it gets. The score: 4/5