EUROPA ‘51 B+
aka: The Greatest Love
Italy (113 mi) 1952 d: Roberto Rossellini
In each of us there's the jester side and its opposite; there is the tendency towards concreteness and the tendency towards fantasy. Today there is a tendency to suppress the second quite brutally. The world is more and more divided in two, between those who want to kill fantasy and those who want to save it, those who want to die and those who want to live. This is the problem I confront in Europa '51. There is a danger of forgetting the second tendency, the tendency towards fantasy, and killing every feeling of humanity left in us, creating robot man, who must think in only one way, the concrete way. In Europa '51 this inhuman threat is openly and violently denounced. I wanted to state my own opinion quite frankly, in my own interest and in my children's. That was the aim of this latest film.
Remember when you first arrived here in Italy, in ’47 wasn’t it? The things that have changed, and the things that have happened since then. In those days you were rather selfish and frivolous, now you’re full of enthusiasm and concern for the class struggle.—Andréa Casatti (Ettore Giannini)
It was like being condemned. Those workers seemed like the slaves of some evil God.
—Irene Girard (Ingrid Bergman)
Ingrid joins the working class, before
The working class goes to Heaven
This film is a perfect example of contrasting styles that don’t necessarily work well together, where Rossellini works largely without a script, using non-professional actors to authenticate realism onscreen, while Ingrid Bergman relies upon a script and works in the grand Hollywood tradition, where this film is largely undone by her over-the-top, operatic acting performance in an otherwise small story that accentuates realism, where the melodramatic excess in many ways subverts the working class message of the film. This is an odd film, where the dubbed voices make it even more peculiar, something of an offshoot of his earlier work, THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS (1950), a Rossellini favorite on the life of St. Francis, making another film about a saint, this time using Bergman as a woman in contemporary society whose motives would likely be completely misunderstood. While Rossellini was not a practicing Catholic, he had a strong interest in Christian values and the ethical teachings of the church in a materialistic world. Bergman was pregnant with her twin daughters Isabella and Isotta at the time of the shoot, which took place during a sweltering heat wave, so much of the shooting took place at night. The film is actually comprised of two different halves, before and after a transformation, where in the first Bergman and Alexander Knox play Irene and George Girard, a wealthy married couple living and raising a young son in post-war Rome, where their lives are more devoted to the party life of society socialites than raising their son, who is rightfully bored and upset after spending all day by himself and now he’s again shuffled out of sight and instructed to go to bed while the adults in the next room can thoroughly enjoy themselves. A fall down the outside staircase causes a scene, later determined to be a suicide attempt, where after a brief improvement, the son dies tragically from a blood clot, reminiscent of an earlier child suicide in GERMANY, YEAR ZERO (1948). Enormously upset, Irene falls into a fit of depression, blaming herself for what happened, where the absolute horror of the suicide provokes a traumatic moment where she’s literally unable to live with her former self anymore.
But Irene takes interest when her communist cousin Andréa (Ettore Giannini) mentions the plight of some people worse off than she is, exposing her to a different world, identifying a particular woman whose child will likely die because she can’t afford the medicine he needs. Irene immediately agrees to pay whatever sum is needed to save the life of a child, where she perks up a bit by visiting the family with Andréa, all of whom are overjoyed to express their gratitude. The picture of life in the housing projects is noisy and overly grim, where everyone is stacked on top of one another, including large families stuffed into one-room apartments. This has an effect on Irene, as these are people in genuine need just surviving day to day, as opposed to her wealthy husband who has all and more than he could ever need. Rossellini does an excellent job contrasting the two worlds, drawing attention to the needs of the poor, where Irene discovers several young children at a drowning site, where she and the oldest of six children help return them safely home, where none other than Gulietta Masina, in a role (though unfortunately dubbed) reminiscent of NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), plays the vibrantly alive and spirited mother who obviously has her hands full. When Andréa finds the mother a job, the start date falls on the same day she has a date with her boyfriend, something she decides is more important, leaving Irene to fill in for her at work. A day at the factory completely changes the texture of the film, returning to the neorealist visualization of the film, where the middle class whims have disappeared, replaced by a blowing factory whistle, where the entire city population seems to show up for work, with an industrial wasteland surrounding the factory. In a powerful sequence, Irene is seen entering the factory in documentary style with real workers, where the overwhelming noise and massive machines dwarf the people inside, suggesting an immense industrial world, where one day on an assembly line job leaves Irene in a state of shock, as it’s beyond her comprehension what ordinary workers endure. In a life-changing moment, clearly disappointed with an easily exploited worker state, Irene decides what’s needed is a spiritual transformation.
One of the most interesting shots in the film is a view of Irene climbing the stairs to the entryway of the church, viewed as an actual ascension, but she remains something of an outsider, not a convert. Nonetheless, when she finds a sick and ill-tempered prostitute on the street coughing uncontrollably, she helps her home and calls a doctor, discovering she has untreatable tuberculosis, where she’s placed in a position to watch over her death in a matter of days, leaving her anguished and utterly heartbroken afterwards. When she breaks up an armed robbery in progress in the apartment next door, where a teenage child is scared half out of his wits, Irene urges the kid to flee to the police station and turn himself in. The police, however, find that it was her actions that allowed the boy to escape, even though he later does turn himself in. When her family is called to the station, her mother wearing pearls and a fur coat, they are completely baffled by her behavior, where the husband assumes she’s under the influence of Andréa and covering up an affair, all agreeing that she be sent to a sanitarium for psychiatric observation. Depending on one’s faith, people may have different takes on her fragile mental state, as she continually suppresses any notion of her former self, claiming she loathes that person, and reaches out in benevolence and love to anyone in need, literally stepping into the shoes of St. Francis of Assisi. However she’s evaluated by several layers of society, including her family, the court, a treating psychiatrist, the chief resident at the mental institution, a local priest, other patients, and several of the people in town whose lives she affected. All weigh in on her sanity, as they can’t understand her behavior without being inspired by the blessings of the church or a political organization to motivate her actions. Someone that freely expresses a spirit of love on their own to anyone they meet is more reminiscent of the supposed feeble-minded Johannes in Dreyer’s faith-based masterwork ORDET (1955), as Irene is seen as a perceived threat to the recovering post-war Italian society, where large portions of the population are left marginalized and dehumanized from the deteriorating economic conditions, circumstances that all but call out for grace and forgiveness. Two other films that seem inspired by EUROPA ‘51, and in particular Bergman’s extraordinary characterization, include the family’s forced institutionalization of Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), and also Fassbinder’s MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN (1975), a film shot with two separate endings, where radical political organizations cynically manipulate a tragic death for their own self-serving purposes, unconcerned with the effect this has on those most affected by the loss. By the end, the film feels loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, an essay from The Brothers Karamazov that suggests if Christ returned today, the Church, protecting their own interests in their interpretation of the Biblical narration, would charge him with heresy and blasphemy, as they need him to stay in heaven where he supposedly ascended.