Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Europa '51


"I do not want to make beautiful films. I want to make useful films." -Roberto Rossellini


In a way, Europa '51, which has enjoyed an upsurge in interest since it was praised by Martin Scorsese in his tribute to Italian film, My Voyage to Italy (1999), is an allegory of Ingrid Bergman's life, before and after she met Roberto Rossellini. According to legend, Bergman had seen the film Rome, Open City (1945) and was so overwhelmed by it that she dropped everything to go all the way to Italy to meet the man who made it. The rest, as they say, is show business history. What that history doesn't tell us is how completely Ingrid Bergman sidetracked Rossellini's filmmaking career. He made six films with Bergman, each one more preposterous than the last. Only when both of their careers were at their nadir did Bergman return to her senses and go back to Hollywood, leaving Rossellini to pick up the pieces of a once committed, if not always rewarding, body of work. The best example of the near-schizophrenic Rossellini-Bergman collaboration was released in 1952 and called, for no apparent reason, Europa '51.

I should point out that, while I accept the historical importance of Open City and, to a lesser extent, Paisan (1946), I found them both unsatisfactory as works of art. And I found Germany, Year Zero (1948), with its German amateurs dubbed with Italian voices, morally urgent but hopelessly confused. The boy's suicide at the film's conclusion was certainly shocking, but otherwise unconvincing. Far from being revelatory of child psychology, Rossellini was simply making a dramatic point at the child's expense. He does it again in Europa '51, and it is a major catalyst of the film's action. But the act is just as unbelievable.

In Europa '51, Ingrid Bergman plays Irene, a glamorous socialite who comes home to a dinner party only to have her young son throw himself down a stairwell. The boy survives the fall but dies soon after of a "blood clot". Understandably grief-stricken, Irene suffers what her husband and friends assume is a mental breakdown when she forsakes her glamorous life and descends into the slums of Rome. Irene and her husband, who works for an "important" American company in Italy (despite being played by the thoroughly English Alexander Knox), have a radical friend who writes for a Communist newspaper. He tells Irene that her son was the victim of their society, a society that allows children to die because their families cannot afford the medicine that would cure them. At his suggestion, she visits the home of one such family with an ailing boy, living six to a room in a housing block, and she gives them the money they need for the boy's treatment. That single visit reveals to Irene a world she never gave a thought to before, but which she returns to, irresistibly, for reasons she cannot even explain to herself. Andre, who obviously wants to do more with Irene than discuss politics, tells her of the socialist paradise on earth, but she tells him she cannot imagine such a paradise that excludes the spiritual dimension, and the souls of all those we have lost. What Rossellini seems to be criticizing in Irene's speech is Socialism's failure to offer a spiritual alternative to the absence of God.

The film doesn't supply us with answers, but it is commendable for asking, however clumsily, the right questions. By following her heart, Irene learns that she can only make herself happy, even if making herself happy isn't her expressed motivation, by making others happy. Her speeches to Andre and to the priest in the asylum where her husband has her committed after she helps a criminal escape, weren't meant to sound dogmatic, but their very vagueness make them seem half-baked. She tells her judge, who alone has the power to set her free, that she doesn't want to join either a religious order or a political party, but that she has no other plans for what to do for the rest of her life except to help those most in need of it. She only knows that she cannot return to her old life. Faced with no other choice, or so the film informs us, she is sent back to her asylum. Her incarceration, like the madwoman in Jane Eyre, so as not to further embarrass her family or the important American company for which her husband works, suggests that her actions are incomprehensible to the society she comes from.

Irene reminded me of the woman (Edna Purviance) in Chaplin's The Kid (1921), who abandons her baby in someone's limousine, only to learn when she has a change of heart that the car was stolen and her baby lost. Years later, the woman is a successful actress and goes to the slums to give away toys to the children (Chaplin had a Dickensian understanding of wealth). So Rossellini's socialite, forsaking her wealth, visits Rome's slums and befriends Passerotto, a poor woman - none other than Giulietta Masina, two years before La Strada would make her world famous, coincidentally as the "Chaplinesque" Gelsomina*, and her brood of children. The last shot of the film shows us Irene looking helplessly through the bars of her asylum at Passerotto and many others she tried to help, standing below in tears, unable to understand why she hasn't been freed.

Whether intentional or not, this film is a kind of primer for political radicalism. Rossellini was trying to show how impossible it is for a rich woman to enter the Kingdom of Heaven on earth that Socialism wants to realize. But looked at coldly, Irene, in her wealth, was in a far better position to help the poor than she would have been even if she had been freed from the asylum. Even if hypocritical, it was only from that position that she was able to help them in the first place. What the man who told us to love our neighbor as ourselves didn't comprehend was that he had uttered a paradox. Such love is a selfless love, a love that wants nothing in return, it is a self-forgetting love, a love oblivious of itself. That is why He said of charity that we should never let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. But Irene tells the priest in the asylum that it isn't love at all that motivates her, but hate - hatred of what she once was.

It is the fact that Rossellini was clearly being serious in making this film, serious about the questions it raises about society, that makes it an ultimate failure. It is far too self-contradictory, too self-absorbed, to be a truly serious statement about the obscene contrast of wealth and poverty. Rossellini leaves his heroine, just as society does, locked away like a lunatic - unable to explain herself or her answers to the insuperable problems of her world. Her fate is not a resolution, but a suspension - the film doesn't end so much as it simply stops in mid-sentence.


*The film was shot in English and Masina was dubbed with a terrible Brooklyn accent. They made her sound like Alice Kramden from The Honeymooners.

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