Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman reteamed the year after Stromboli [review] for a more conventional melodrama, though one that also had a strong role for a female lead and a message that is both spiritual and political. Released in 1952, Europe '51 (sometimes also known as Europa '51) is easier terrain than Stromboli, as Rossellini continues to massage the ragged edges of Neorealism to fit inside the boundaries of more traditional cinema.
Once again Bergman plays an immigrant living in Italy, the wife of an ambassador who has been in country since before the war. Irene Girard and husband George (Alexander Knox) are wealthy and run in society circles, and perhaps are better off now than they were before WWII--though of a status not wholly unearned. George fought on the front lines, leaving Irene to raise their young son (Sandro Franchina) on her own. This has caused mother and child to have an uncommon bond, perhaps too close. He is a sensitive child who can't stand time away from her or share her attentions.
The youngster's clinginess provides Europe '51's inciting incident. When his mother is dismissive of him before a dinner party, the boy disrupts the event by throwing himself down the stairs. Whether he intended to kill himself or not is never clear, but the child succeeds regardless. Irene's world becomes unmoored, and she sees no purpose in carrying on. That is, until her leftist friend, Andrea (Ettore Giannini), a journalist, introduces her to a family who is too poor to buy their child life-saving medicine. Unwilling to allow another mother lose her baby, Irene gives them the money they need, and she finds some satisfaction in this charitable work. Seeing how the family lives--in a tenement, where the sense of community transcends finances--the sheltered wife is awakened to the struggles of her countrymen. She begins to help out other people, including finding a gregarious single mother of six (the great Giulieta Masina, La strada [review]) a factory job and then filling in for the woman so she doesn't lose it. This brief yet overwhleming assembly line experience would be enough to push just about anyone toward Communism, no matter how much it is frowned upon by friends, family, and society at large. It's Irene's first taste of real labor, and she doesn't care for the flavor.
Irene's metamorphosis is not just political, however, nor is it achieved lightly. Rossellini walks a fine line connecting Marxist philosophy to early Christianity and Jesus' role as a liberator of slaves and champion of the poor. Europe '51 suggests a moral and religious justification for Communism, and reminds us that the defense of the least amongst us is the greatest of virtues. In the most obvious parallel to New Testament parables, Irene cares for an ailing prostitute, defending the woman against doubts and aspersions cast by her neighbors. There is no promise of reward for doing so, the motivation is simply that it's the right thing to do.
Bergman gives a sensitive performance as Irene, avoiding any histrionics or showboating. There are no big monologues here. The stronger emotion comes from what she keeps in reserve, in how little she telegraphs Irene's interior pain. Even in the movie's third act, which bears no small resemblance to the metaphysical melodramatics of Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession [review], for instance), Irene is unflappable when faced with disbelief. Rossellini, it would seem, is transferring lessons learned from his cinematic interpretation of St. Francis of Assisi two years earlier: the more opposition Irene faces, the more courageous her convictions. Her devotion is challenged for real when her husband and mother have her committed to a mental institution. Even there, she becomes an angel of mercy. (Is it crazy that Raffaello Matarazzo's The White Angel [review] comes to mind?)
As with Stromboli where Rossellini juxtaposed Bergman's star-quality with the non-professional actors that rounded out the cast, here the director uses the ostentatious apartments of the rich, and the illusion of movie wealth, to illuminate the other side of life. Shooting on location in real slums, and capturing actual laborers at work, he shows the conditions that the class system creates for those on its lowest levels. It's an indictment of upper-class excess, but in a nod to his Neorealist roots, Rossellini is also questioning the accepted representation of the high life in popular cinema. Most of us don't live like Irene, but our movie watching has made her wealth seem practically normal; at the same time, the majority of us are (hopefully) still shocked by images of the working poor. Real life is far less familiar to a movie screen than fantasy.
The impact of the movie comes not from the tears shed, however, but from the way the director uses one specific experience and spreads it out to show the impact the individual can have on the world around her. The film is called Europe '51 because what Irene sees, despite being confined to one neighborhood, represents the problems that plagued the entire continent. By extension, she is a citizen without borders, her example serving as a lesson to all. If she can change, why not the rest of us?Europa '51 plays Saturday, July 6, at 6:30pm, and again on Sunday, July 7, at 5:45pm, as part of the NW Film Center's presentation of "The Solitude Trilogy." View the full schedule here.