I would much rather wait to write about this one until I’ve had more time with it, and preferably another couple of watches. It’s not particularly complicated, and yet it’s about an awful lot – labor, sacrifice, political philosophy, spirituality, society, redemption, and most of all, love. Not romantic love, but love of humanity itself and especially the less fortunate.
Irene (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband George are wealthy, and despite surviving the trauma of WWII, they don’t have too much to worry about – their biggest worry is their 10-year-old son Michel, who’s bored and lonely in their palatial home. They don’t pay him a lot of attention, but when he’s injured and dies (not really spoilers, that’s in the first fifteen minutes or so), Irene undergoes a massive change of heart. She spends more time with George’s cousin Andrea (a man), a doctor. Andrea introduces her to some of the city’s underserved, and what begins as a simple monetary exchange (Irene offers to pay for a child’s medicine) ends with her drawn deeper and deeper into service.
Though this seems like the set-up for a straight-forward, feel-good redemption drama, Rossellini and Co. have much more on their minds. Irene leaves her home and husband more and more, but he just thinks she’s having an affair – when she disappears for several days and is then implicated in a young bank robber’s escape, George wonders if she might be mentally unstable. Irene becomes a sort of modern-day Joan of Arc figure, though in a less mystical, more social gospel sort of way. She uses religious language to describe her new devotion to caring for the poor, but without any actual religious weight behind it – something I noted myself, and then was reiterated by the doctor and priest at the psychiatric clinic. They take a much bigger leap of logic, though, and assume that means she’s insane.
There’s honestly so much to unpack in this movie – like I said, I can’t even get my head around it all after one viewing, much less talk intelligently about it. It’s perhaps an examination of a misunderstood saint (like Joan of Arc) in a modern, secular setting – how would we understand that? Would we assume that sudden self-sacrifice and devotion to strangers over our own families is an act of insanity? Yet she says herself that this fierce love for humanity is borne out of hate for herself. Does she really care for people at all, or is she merely trying to expunge her own guilt over the death of her son? Would that make her a saint or something else? And…does her motive really matter, if the poor are, in fact, helped by her?
But let’s pull it back down. All this would be nothing more than a thought-provoking philosophical treatise were it not for Ingrid Bergman. I always enjoy her, but she is simply tremendous. From the privileged, thoughtless wife and mother in the beginning to the tortured soul of the middle, to the calm and serene maybe!saint at the end, she rivets every scene. Her bemusement at Giulietta Masina’s constant jabbering (seeing Masina outside a Fellini film was an unexpected treat, too!), her hesitation and ultimate horror at dehumanizing factory work, her shock at death, her hysterical laughter at the police station – everything is a little heightened, and oh so effective for it.
I’d only seen two Rossellini films before this, both part of his 1940s Neorealist war trilogy. This one is tagged Neorealism in Flickchart’s database, but it doesn’t actually feel Neorealist to me. The tone is too heightened, not naturalistic, and the lighting is very conscientious – full of deep contrast in the night shots, chiaroscuro everywhere, and flat and down to earth during the day. The lighting also contrasts Irene in servant mode (deeply shadowed yes, but alive with the interplay of light and dark) vs. when modern society is controlling her – at the factory, the police station, the clinic, where the flat and almost washed out lighting has a deadening, soulless effect. Again, I need to watch it again to tease all this out.
I had this on my “interested but wary” list at the beginning of the year; clearly Dan Kocher knows me better than I know myself. One thing I’m finding out about myself during this challenge that I never really thought of before, is that I don’t necessarily like straight-up religious things, but I get a lot out of movies that deal with faith and philosophy in complicated and thought-provoking ways. I can definitely see myself getting a lot out of this one for years to come.
Stats and stuff…
directed by Gus van Sant, written by Roberto Rossellini, Sandro De Feo, Mario Pannunzio, Ivo Perilli, and Brunello Rondi
starring Ingrid Bergman, Alexander Knox, Ettore Giannini, Giulietta Masina
I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Europa ’51 entered my chart:
Europa ’51 beats Royal Wedding
Europa ’51 beats Shadow Magic
Europa ’51 beats Gerald McBoing Boing
Europa ’51 loses to Wings of Desire
Europa ’51 beats Scarlet Street
Europa ’51 beats Moonrise Kingdom
Europa ’51 loses to After the Thin Man
Europa ’51 beats The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Europa ’51 loses to Gaslight
Europa ’51 beats Office Space
Europa ’51 loses to The Double Life of Veronique
Final ranking #263 out of 3607 films on my chart (93%)
It is now my #1 Roberto Rossellini film, my #4 Ingrid Bergman film, my #3 Giulietta Masina film, my #3 Italian Neorealism film (though I sort of question how well that tag fits), my #17 Psychological Drama, and my #5 film of 1952.
Europa ’51 was recommended by Dan Kocher, a friend from the Flickcharters group on Facebook.
A few quotes…
Irene: Remember when father came home from the war?
Michel: You didn’t spend time with me anymore after that.
Andrea: It’s no use tormenting yourself. What’s the good of repeating ‘if I’d done this, if I’d done that’? Things are as they are.
Irene: Why should children pay for it? It’s not just. Then God is not just.
George: That’s no way to talk to Irene. She’s an intelligent woman. We have to surround her with love and concern, like a convalescent patient.
Giulietta: [re: men] They’re good for one thing. Making love. And then only when you show them how.
Irene: [after a day in the factory] I had to see and feel that work, and I was horrified! It was like a horrible prison sentence.
Irene:At a certain point love for those closest to us is not enough. I felt it was too selfish, too narrow.
Priest:We must do good, but within certain limits, as God’s will dictates.
Irene: No, love has no limits. Evil is born from the fact we never give all our love to those who need it most. We must love them just as they are and help them the best we can. That’s how God made us.
Irene: [to suicidal woman] You are not alone.
Irene: If I thought I had great spiritual power, I’d be insane and nothing else.
Doctor: Then it’s love.
Irene: No, it’s hate. Yes, love of others is borne only out of hate for myself.
Judge: Are we dealing here with an insane woman or a missionary?
People: What have you done? You’re leaving her here? She’s not crazy! She’s a saint! She’s a saint!
A few more screenshots…