Europa ‘51 is the best argument for creative marriages. It’s one of six films the great Roberto Rossellini made with his wife, the equally great Ingrid Bergman. Rossellini finds the beauty and drama in Bergman’s face the way only someone who’s learned to love her can. He makes everyone see the beauty he’s found there.
Bergman and Rossellini are in true collaboration here, not just in the way he directs her performance, but in the way he organizes the visuals. She glows with spiritual light after her awakening, with Rossellini’s lighting sometimes, subtly, creating a literal halo around her. Before her awakening, Bergman’s performance and Rossellini’s camera play off each other to impress her spiritual deadness on us, the shadows around her cheekbones turning her face into a death’s head. In her bedridden depression, she’s far more glamorously made up than any real woman would be in that position, and yet she still looks frighteningly close to death. And she doesn’t let the camera do all the work either. Even in lighthearted Hollywood films like Notorious and Casablanca, she was the master of quiet dignity and profound, buried pain, and she gets a showcase for her skill here like she, or any other actress, rarely get.
All that Hollywood-esque fussing over a Hollywood star may seem like a break from the gritty Neorealist movement Rossellini helped found. But Europe ‘51 shows the director still just as obsessed with the same personal and collective concerns as he’s always been, maybe even more so. It just makes them hit home more powerfully with the unashamedly cheesy, manipulative way Rossellini explores them.
That’s by no means a knock. So many of his followers who put the needs of dull, literal realism ahead of cinema’s real power to pass through the mind and cut right to the heart. To paraphrase an argument between the great Russian pioneers Sergei Eisenstein and Dizga Vertov, he doesn’t just want the kino-eye. He hits you where it counts with the kino-fist.
And he has to, because Europe ‘51 is, in his own words, didactic. It’s a film about faith that escapes the pitfalls of modern American faith-based films because of the powerful human story that doesn’t exist to justify Rossellini’s message but becomes the basis for it. As for the message itself, Rossellini is the first to admit he doesn’t have any answers. Even his heroine can’t fully explain herself. Rossellini can only look unflinchingly at the poverty and misery of postwar Italy and fin the answers he’s offered lacking.
At the time, Rossellini’s country was a battleground for the Cold War, with both the US and the USSR backing their own parties, each of which wanted their greatest political filmmaker on their side. Rossellini’s response here is, in so many words, fuck all a’ y’all. While one party called themselves the Christian Democrats and enjoyed support from the Catholic Church, Rossellini found no place for authentic Christianity in his world.
Europe ‘51 was Rossellini’s follow-up to The Flowers of St. Francis, and the earlier film raised a question in his mind. What would happen to St. Francis if he lived today? Like Francis, Ingrid Bergman’s Irene gives up a life of privilege to serve the poor. But far from being sainted, she’s ostracized, pathologized, and locked away in a mental hospital. Rossellini wasn’t just indulging in paranoid fantasies here. He took the plot from life — he really knew a former black marketeer during the war who had an attack of conscience and turned himself in. His good deed didn’t go unpunished, and he was held for psychiatric evaluation. What hope is there for a society where goodness is treated as an illness?
That question follows Irene throughout the movie. Her husband, incapable of goodness himself, can’t conceive of it from Irene, and takes it for granted that she can only be abandoning her comfortable home to cheat on him. Even the priest can’t fathom Irene’s path, and in a wonderful scene, she turns the tables on his attempt to preach to her, standing at her full height so she towers over him, gazing unblinkingly into the camera with the intensity of an Orthodox icon while the priest averts his eyes.
The reception to Europe ‘51 proved its point. Rossellini received a letter direct from the Italian president demanding cuts. Before her awakening, we see Irene’s discomfort with political concerns by trying to divert a political battle with her bourgeois etiquette in seating the different factions to minimize conflict. President Enrico De Nicoli obviously shared her discomfort, demanding the conversation be excised, particularly objecting to Irene’s description of the Communist as “the dove of peace.”
Meanwhile, Communists objected to a brilliant scene where Irene is horrified by the dehumanizing conditions of the factory when she fills in for Giulietta Masina’s character, and Rossellini cuts so frantically between the endless plodding of the machines and Bergman’s horrified face that you can’t help but agree. At the time, party orthodoxy was industrialization would uplift the workers of the world. Ironically, Rossellini turned out to be ahead of the curve — it’s now accepted in leftist circles that glorification of work is an inherently capitalist idea.
The Communists were out of power so they didn’t have the ability to remove this scene, but De Nicoli could remove another, where Irene ducks into a movie theater for relief and instead finds a propaganda film about the building of a new dam that inspires the same horror. In other words, both parties, “Christian” or not, share the same spiritual deadness, hiding from Creation in their own, manmade creations. Irene’s Communist cousin Andrea sets her on the road to her spiritual awakening, but she soon overtakes him. Poverty must be fought, but Andrea’s materialistic methods won’t do the job, and Rossellini foreshadows this development through Ettore Giannini’s sinister, zombielike performance.
In other words, he may take part in the class struggle but he remains a part of his own class. Rossellini may not entirely side with the Communists, but that’s nothing compared to his scathing portrayal of the bourgeoisie as walking corpses. In contrast, he finds the working class exploding with life, thanks in no small part to the vibrancy of Giulietta Masina. Watching Europa ‘51 gives you a sadistic choice — you can watch two of the greatest actresses of all time sharing the screen, but you can only see half of one of their performances — Masina doesn’t voice herself in the English dub, and Bergman’s dubbed over in the Italian one. In the English version, the dub actress literally can’t keep up with Masina’s energy. Seeing her alongside Bergman is like reading a comic with two characters drawn by different artists — fitting, since she’d soon become a part of her future husband Federico Fellini’s fantastical parallel world. Even without her own voice, Masina still threatens to take over the movie. The same year, she did the same in Fellini’s The White Sheik in a bit part as a streetwalker named Cabiria. A few years later, she and Fellini would make a whole movie about Cabiria, one of the best they ever did, and no wonder — her walk-on in The White Sheik is practically a mini-movie in itself, and an even better one than the movie surrounding it.
If Europa ‘51 is a political film, it never loses sight of the personal. Maybe that’s because it’s so deeply personal for Rossellini. Irene’s awakening comes out of her despair when her son commits suicide, and Rossellini’s own son had died around the same age. He’d already explored this trauma in one of his best films, Germany Year Zero (and that’s no spoiler — the grim fatalism of the last act only hits harder when you know where it’s going). That was from the child’s perspective, but Europa looks at the same situation from the parent’s perspective and asks more explicitly how we can live in a world that would kill a child.
But even when he isn’t drawing from personal pain, Rossellini makes Europe ‘51 deeply, powerfully painful. More than its explicitly “didactic” elements, this is where Rossellini’s Christian ideas come through the most strongly. He may go to the moldy old Victorian cliché of the dying prostitute (they never say what she’s dying of — could it be consumption? The black lung?). But as he makes the sweat glisten on her face and as Bergman seems almost physically incapacitated by grief, it’s hard not to share the Christian view of death. When we were children, adults tried to soften our horror of death by telling us it’s a natural part of life. But the Bible and Europa ‘51 say the opposite, not deflecting that horror but rubbing our faces in it and showing it as something deeply unnatural. Humanity was created to live forever — why do we have to suffer and die like this?
What really keeps Europa ‘51 from the pitfalls of phony spiritual uplift is its deep sense of despair. If it’s difficult to take Irene’s rejection of change at the social level seriously, Rossellini shows that she hasn’t yet found an alternative. No matter how she tries, there’s still only so much she can do, and in the end, she can’t quite alleviate the suffering that drives her. That’s not just Rossellini’s cynicism about the modern world: In the most famous scene in The Flowers of St. Francis, the saint risks his life to embrace a leper, only for the leper to keep walking while Francis howls in anguish. Maybe that’s what well-known Rossellini fan Martin Scorsese had in mind when he directed Nicolas Cage to deliver these lines in Bringing Out the Dead: “t. As the years went by I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop.”
But the root word of “compassion” is “suffering with,” and maybe that’s enough. That’s certainly what Irene does in her one bonafide miracle, saving one of her fellow patients in a mental hospital from a seizure just by telling her, “I’m here.” Europa ‘51’s ending is deeply ambivalent, and that only makes it more powerful. By trying to shut her up, the protectors of the status quo end up placing her where she’s needed most. A genuine cult of saints seems to be growing around Irene, and as her supposed family leaves, we see all the people she tried to help gathering under her window. But all she can do is watch them, tearfully, from behind bars. The doctors and priests sympathize with Irene, but they wash their hands. “Our job is to protect society as it now exists,” one of them says. That’s far more scathing than anything anyone else could accuse them of.