A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Europa '51 (Roberto Rossellini, 1952)


The films Rossellini made during his affair with and marriage to Ingrid Bergman have an everlasting fascination for movie buffs intrigued by the clash of styles: Bergman's Hollywood-style star glamour and Rossellini's gritty, improvisational neo-realism. But they have few real enthusiasts except for hardcore critics inclined toward the auteur theory. For most movie-watchers they seem like failed experiments. Stromboli (1950) has some moments of cinematic excitement -- the volcano explosion, the tuna hunt -- that draw on Rossellini's skill at filming actuality, but the ending, Bergman's epiphany on the side of the volcano, comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, narratively speaking. Both Journey to Italy (1954) and Fear (1954) end with reconciliations of the conflicted couples that are dramatically unearned. When it comes to dramatic structure, only Europa '51 seems relatively coherent, tracing the journey of Bergman from grief at the loss of her child to a kind of beatific transcendence. But even a sympathetic critic like James Harvey, in his fine discussion of the Bergman-Rossellini oeuvre in his book Watching Them Be, finds the screenplay "Like a play of ideas without the ideas." I don't think that's entirely fair: It seems to me that Europa '51 is crowded with ideas to the point that it becomes a movie about the failure of ideas -- or rather ideology. Nothing suffices to explain Bergman's drive toward saintly service -- she helps a poor family pay for the medical treatment of a child; she befriends a young woman (Giulietta Masina) to the point of filling in for her one day at the woman's job in a horrifying factory; she helps a young hoodlum elude the police; she nurses a dying prostitute -- all of which appalls her husband (Alexander Knox) and her wealthy family. Not religion, not politics, not even psychoanalysis serves to explain or justify her actions, at least in the eyes of the church, the state, and the medical establishment. Or, for that matter, in her own eyes. She doesn't know why she becomes a secular saint, and this of course means she winds up in a mental institution -- where she continues to radiate benevolence even toward the tormented inmates. David Thomson, one of the film's admirers, says, "It's a movie that resonates with the deep-seated urge for moral reform after the war." But ultimately it also seems to me to forecast the failure of any attempt at moral reform. It might be instructive to watch this movie in tandem with a slightly later examination of the moral malaise of postwar Europe, La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960).

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