The late director George P. Cosmatos had an interesting career in Hollywood. While his films were always slick affairs, full of rich atmosphere and well directed action, they weren't critically acclaimed. Films like Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, and Leviathan did fairly well at the box-office and achieved notable legions of well-meaning fans, but Cosmatos' real skills were evidenced long before these big-budget pec-flexers.
Cosmatos began his career as an assistant director, cutting his teeth on classic pictures like Exodus, Zobra the Greek, and The Day the Fish Came Out. His first film was 1970's interesting, thought hardly stirring, The Beloved (released in the UK as Restless). Massacre in Rome was his second feature film and one that combines his earlier, moodier work with an action-film sensibility.
The massacre of the title took place towards the end of the Nazi's occupation of Rome. In March of 1944, a citizens group calling itself the Roman Underground planted a bomb on a roadside by which Nazi soldiers march daily. The bomb went off, 33 German soldiers were killed, and the Nazis vowed revenge. How? They killed 10 Italian men for every German soldier murdered.
SS Lieutenant Col. Kappler (Richard Burton), an art-loving sadist, gives the orders and Father Pietro Antonelli (Marcello Mastroianni) is a priest from the Vatican who is ordered to collaborate with Kappler. Father Antonelli, a pacifist, can either stand by and watch as the Germans slaughter 330 Italian men or defy the Pope and intervene.
One of this picture's biggest draws is its formidable cast. Richard Burton, sadly best remembered for his debauched and drunken adventures outside of film, was one of England's finest actors (see The Taming of the Shrew, Anne of the Thousand Days, Becket) before slipping into B-roles that tarnished his image. His performance here is on par with his better films, and had the picture focused more on developing his character it may have well been one of his finest roles. One can only imagine. Mastroianni, best known for 8 1/2 , also delivers a heartfelt and powerful performance. Outside of Burton and Mastroianni, the film features nice turns by John Steiner (yes, he plays a Nazi but this time round he's not as megalomaniacal), Peter Vaughn (Straw Dogs), and Anthony Steel.
Cosmatos handles the action sequences with aplomb. The attack on the German troops is stunningly visualized and there are several notable sequences where Cosmatos really cranks up the tension to get the viewer sweating. Unlike some of his later, more commercial films, Cosmatos doesn't overstylize, letting the film unspool with an almost tangible restraint. Ennio Morricone's score is likewise compelling.
Cosmatos went on to bigger and in many ways duller films, Massacre in Rome remains one of his finest pictures. It's nice to see this film getting a luxurious two-disc DVD release. Noshame continues a fine run of spotless transfers of rare European films.