The Social Spirituality of Europa ’51 (Part 1)

Originally published on The Solute
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, screw 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.

Part 2

Features writer at Looper and staff writer and editor at The Solute

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