Based on screenwriter Robert Katz's own controversial 1967 bestseller, Death in Rome, the 1973 film Massacre In Rome is from journeyman director George Pan Cosmatos and tells the true story of the 1944 partisan roadside bombing that killed thirty-three members of the SS Police Regiment Bozen, and the subsequent Nazi reprisal, ordered by Hitler, that saw a staggering 335 Italians executed in what became known as the Ardeatine massacre. Katz's book achieved notoriety because it accused the then incumbent Pope, Pope Pius XII, of kowtowing to the Nazis and refusing to intervene in or condemn the slaughter of innocents. As a result Katz was sued by the Pope's heirs and was incarcerated in gaol.
The film plays fast and loose with history and perhaps the most major example of this is in the way it depicts SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the officer responsible for rounding up those to be executed. Kappler was a thirty-something Nazi zealout in reality, but in the film he is played by Richard Burton as a jaded, pragmatic and natural soldier; a character in the stereotypical tradition of 'the sympathetic Nazi'. It's a curious approach to seemingly sanitise a man who was still, at that time, serving a life sentence for war crimes (he would subsequently escape from prison some four years after this picture was released, via his wife's suitcase no less! At the time, Kappler was suffering from terminal cancer and weighed just 47kg - she simply carried him out!) but, given that so much of Katz and Cosmatos' screenplay is shown from the POV of the occupied forces it was perhaps necessary to depict a leading Nazi in some form of sympathetic light.
Starring opposite Burton is Marcello Mastroianni as a composite Vatican official, a character inspired by both Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty (who would subsequently be portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1983 film The Scarlet and The Black) and Don Pietro Pappagallo (who was the inspiration for Aldo Fabrizi's Pietro Pellegrini in Roberto Rossellini's 1947 film Rome, Open City) The supporting cast is made up of Italian actors and several British character actors including Leo McKern, Anthony Steel and Peter Vaughan, as well as the British expat Italian star John Steiner whose urbanity, combined with his gaunt features and slicked back hair makes him the embodiment of Nazism.
The real story requires something more than this plodding Euro pudding and, weirdly, Cosmatos seems to struggle with the suspension required for the film's setpieces. Nevertheless, where the film's sluggish pace rather curiously excels is in the sobering logistics of just such a massacre and the cold, unfeeling emotion such an action requires; scenes of Burton painstakingly writing out by lamplight the death warrants of the hundreds handpicked for execution, or condemning Jews with little compunction, are especially striking and thought provoking, putting me in mind of that infamous 'banality of evil' quote concerning another Nazi steeped in blood, Adolf Eichmann.
The events of 1944 still cast a long shadow; in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared Pius XII 'venerable', the first step towards canonization, ie Sainthood. It was a move that created significant protest across the world both in light of his inaction during the Ardeatine massacre and from Jewish groups who cite Pius XII as not doing enough in the face of the Holocaust.