Italian actress Lucia Bosè (1931-2020), Rome 11:00 and the social dimensions of a tragedy

Italian actress Lucia Bosè died March 23 from complications related to COVID-19. She was 89 and living in Segovia, Spain at the time of her death. Bosè got her start in the Italian neorealist movement, known for its dramatizations of the lives of the poor and working class.

During her career, Bosè appeared in numerous Italian, Spanish and French film productions, working with numerous prominent filmmakers along the way. Her collaborators included Giuseppe De Santis (Bitter Rice, No Peace Under the Olive Tree), Michelangelo Antonioni (Story of a Love Affair, The Lady Without Camelias), Luis Buñuel (Cela s'appelle l'aurore), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Under the Sign of Scorpio), Federico Fellini (Satyricon) and Liliana Cavani (The Guest).

Another film Bosè made with Giuseppe De Santis feels especially significant at present. Rome 11:00 (1952) is based on a real event, which took place in 1951 in Rome. During a period of terrible unemployment, as many as 200 young women answered a newspaper ad for a single job opening for a position as a secretary. Waiting to be interviewed, the women were crowded into a long line that spanned the full length of a staircase several stories high. Unable to hold their weight, the stairs collapsed. One of the women died, and scores were injured.

Rome 11:00 explores the social dimensions of this tragedy. It leads viewers to ask important questions. When is an accident not just an accident? Who or what is responsible for such an event? This artistic investigation seems especially meaningful now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives in multiple countries. Here is another tragedy that, while biological in nature, is dependent on the malign neglect of world governments, which sacrifice basic human needs to the pursuit of profit, in order to spread as widely as it has. The suffering of the young women in Rome 11:00, from a chance event that did not need to happen, likewise has a social basis.

To prepare their film, De Santis and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D.) drew from interviews with survivors conducted by Elio Petri. In keeping with the neorealist practice of using nonprofessional actors, they also cast some of the victims of the disaster in supporting roles.

As the film opens, the job seekers begin to line up one by one at the address listed in the want ad. The young women size each other up as competition. They are irritable, gossiping, sad-eyed or bored. They are incensed to discover there is only a single job available, something many of them did not know until they arrived. They don’t know what the pay is either. It doesn’t matter; they’ll take it. In their faces and their very bearing, the viewer becomes aware of the tremendous weight of their lives.

The filmmakers pay special attention to a few of the women corralled on the stairs. There is a domestic servant eager to escape the family that employs her, a girl who dreams of becoming a singer, a young woman who fled the poverty of the countryside for the poverty of the city. Bosè’s character, Simona, comes from a wealthy background. She has fallen in love with a struggling artist (Raf Vallone) and prefers a life with him to a life of luxury. That means she must find work.

After a long wait, a few of the girls enter the boss’s office for their interview. In their interactions with him, they reveal to the viewer the ways in which they have already been brutalized by the experience of work and searching for work. One girl shrinks away in fear of her interviewer’s touch. Another, desperate and unable to type, raises her skirt to reveal her leg only to be pitied for it.

The filmmakers never spell things out. There is much that goes unsaid in such interactions, but it is nevertheless recognized by the viewer. The subtlety with which the filmmakers handle the best sequences in Rome 11:00 makes the drama all the more convincing and real.

When the boss emerges from his office to announce that no more than 40 of the 200 women can possibly be interviewed, tensions mount. Luciana (Carla Del Poggio), whose husband has been out of work for six months, rushes forward from her place far down the line and barges into the office, securing her interview. She is hated by the others for this selfish act. Some of the applicants decide they, too, will push their way forward. In the commotion, the stairs rock until they collapse.

The collapse makes for a disturbing sequence. We see the dust-covered hands of young women sticking out of the rubble. Others cling to a wall high above the ground, balancing on whatever small section of the stairs remain intact. The camera slowly pans its way up the collapsed stairwell to the boss on top looking down at the mess of bodies below.

People gather outside the building and wonder who is to blame. The boss? Luciana? The building’s architect? Its landlord? The police begin an investigation. Luciana blames herself.

From here, the film moves out of the suffocating staircase and follows the injured or disturbed survivors into the streets and hospitals. We watch as families are shocked to discover they must pay for the time spent by the victims in the hospital. A staffer tells the young unemployed women and their out-of-work family members not to worry so long as they have insurance through their workplace.

After the aspiring singer is interviewed by a radio journalist, the reporter asks her father to say something about the disaster. “The minimum wage should be higher!” he shouts. Told that has nothing to do with the staircase accident, he insists, “It does!”

On the way home to convalesce with her wealthy family, Simona decides to get out of the car and run back to her poor artist boyfriend. He had earlier insisted she go with her family, as he was unable to give her the kind of life she deserved. In the sequence that follows, Bosè, as Simona, contributes something very valuable. When she arrives at the artist’s apartment, she does not announce herself. She merely gets back to the simple work of being there, exactly where she wants to be. The artist finally realizes she has come back. They do not speak to each other. The entire sequence plays out in silence. Her decision has been made, come what may. These are beautiful moments of sensitivity and mutual understanding. The filmmakers wisely avoid the kind of melodrama that would have tempted lesser artists.

In general, Rome 11:00 memorably contrasts the self-sacrifice and warmth among poor and working-class layers to the cold and mechanical ways of the bosses and police. When the servant girl who survives the collapse is unable to afford a train ticket home, workers who are not much better off raise the necessary money for her. When the father of one of the survivors discovers his daughter is pregnant, he nearly throws her out of his home, but she is so warmly cheered by all her neighbors upon returning from the hospital, they lead him to reconsider.

The police investigation eventually catches up with Luciana, who is blamed by many of the survivors for causing the collapse. She is brought in for questioning and finds herself in a room with all the others whose blame is being considered—the boss, the architect and so on.

De Santis’ film is ultimately, and movingly, sympathetic to Luciana. When she learns that one of the accident victims has died, she is driven to the brink of suicide. Witnessing her shame and desperation, the other survivors begin to feel sympathy for her too. After all, more than a few of them had also tried to push their way forward. It is significant that the film, here and elsewhere, so ably dramatizes such shifts from suspicion to sympathy and solidarity. The upheaval caused by the accident, and some of the social problems it has begun to lay bare, produces a change in attitudes and understanding.

Still, a reporter tells the head of the inquest, someone must be named. The press needs its own victim, an individual on whom to pin the responsibility for what is ultimately a social tragedy. No such comfortable and easy ending is in store, however, for the reporter or for the viewer. This is entirely to the filmmakers’ credit.

Rome 11:00 rejects such simplistic views of the world and the petty moralizing that accompanies them. It trusts viewers to develop their own sympathies for Luciana, just as Luciana’s fellow survivors did. The accident is not her fault, but the fault of a society that leaves hundreds of workers struggling for a single, low-wage job. One is left feeling strongly the needlessness of the accident itself and the inability of society to assist in its aftermath. Almost 70 years after it was made, Rome 11:00 speaks to some of the central difficulties of our own times.