Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Roberto Rossellini | Europa '51

a dangerous saint
by Douglas Messerli

Roberto Rossellini (story), Sandro De Feo, Mario Pannunzio, Ivo Perilli, and Brunello Rondi (writers), Roberto Rossellini (director) Europa ’51 / 1952, USA 1954

Things in Rome are not going well for the wealthy socialite, Irene Girard (Ingrid Bergman). The trams and busses are on strike, and Irene, driving home, her pet in the back seat, is frustrated with traffic. She is apparently late, and arrives only to be told that the elevator is, once again, not working. As she arrives home, she looks nervously over the dining table; apparently the Girard’s are having company for dinner. To her husband George (Alexander Knox), petulant about her lateness, Irene announces that there will be two other guests, her cousin Andrea and a woman friend. Quickly dressing for dinner, Irene brushes her hair while impatiently listening to her young son, Michele, who is quite unhappy about something, perhaps to do with the fact that his tutor, an elderly man whom he describes to his mother as “touching” him too freely, has once again not shown up; he has been left alone for the entire day.
      In the midst of his tales of unhappiness, Irene rushes to the kitchen to remind the cook that one of the guests must have something light to eat and to check on the champagne. By the time she returns to the bedroom Michele, angry with his mother’s inattention, mocks a gesture of hanging himself.
      One of the guests brings the young boy a train, but when Michele is called down to receive it, he seems disinterested in the “toy”; although politely greeting, as he is told to, each of the dinner guests, he exits by leaving the gift behind.
      George is disturbed about the boy, whom, it appears, is not coping well with the loss of his nurse and, having suffered World War II in England with his mother, has grown up, is clearly too dependent upon her love. There are even obvious suggestions here of abnormal desires, for when his mother goes up to kiss him goodnight, she finds him naked under the covers, for which she scolds him.  
      The dinner itself, although festive in appearance, seems a rather staid affair, Irene constantly attempting to shift topics as Andrea begins to express his ideas. He is a Communist, an idealist with regard to the future, while one of the guests is an obvious pessimist, convinced there will be further war. Soon after their aborted discussion, we hear a scream. Michele has fallen to the floor down flights of several stairs, an attempt, we later discover, at suicide.

     The horrified parents rush the child to the hospital, where the doctor assures them that he has suffered only a broken femur, and that he will survive. But with his fall, something within the busy hostess has changed, which she begins to reveal the moment Michele is returned home. If before she was inattentive to him, she now almost devours him; laying her head next to his, she assures him that she will leave him alone again, reminding him of their painful adventures in England together. The moment she does leave him in the hands of a nurse, he dies—at least in the Italian version of the film—of a blood clot.
       Throughout these horrifying early scenes of Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 the camera has followed Irene’s actions with near whirlwind velocity, the scenes conveying—in what is quite unusual in this director’s films—a near claustrophobic intensity. Even in the following scene, as Irene, grief-stricken and exhausted with sorrow, lies in a near cationic state in her bed, Rossellini suggests the self-absorption of this couple’s lives by having George take a business call as he sits in seeming solicitude beside Irene’s sick bed. He has only hackneyed prescriptions for her: she must get more rest, she must put the incident behind her and return to life.
   What he and others have not prepared for is “precisely” that she will soon put the past behind her and return to life in a manner far more involved that she has previously lived it. It begins with a visit to her journalist cousin, Andrea (Ettore Giannini) who tells her a story of a poor Italian family who can hardly eke out a living, and cannot afford to pay for the medicines for their sickly son. As if she had never before imagined such poverty, she quickly suggests that she can pay for their medicines, and Andrea takes her to see the family and give them the money. Invited in for a drink, Irene witnesses their love and joy in each other, and experiences a world she has never before known. Although the room in which the family is gathered in a small one, filled with family members and others from the project who pop in from time to time, this scene appears, in comparison with her many-roomed dwelling, almost spacious; and from this time forward Rossellini’s film will dispassionately witness an entire world that opens the audience and the mind of its central hero ever outward. Suddenly emerging from her bed, Irene begins long voyages throughout Rome, particularly to the poorer neighborhoods, slowly picking up information along the way while meeting starving post-World War II street urchins and a wonderfully exuberant woman, Giuletta, detta Passerotto (Giulietta Masina), who has several children, some of them her own, others who have simply joined up with her little family.

    At first, she meets regularly with Andrea, who admits that he has always loved her. She reads his socialist and Communist books, but determines that it is still not the right route for her, particularly after substituting for her friend Giuletta, in a factory for two days. There she discovers work does not ennoble them, but abuses them like slaves. In her desire to love without bounds, including her dead son, she, accordingly, turns briefly to the spiritual, entering a church for solace and prayer. But here, in the overwrought glory of church wealth, she also finds it difficult to find what she is seeking, which Rossellini expresses in her brief goodbye to the church with the simple gesture of the cross, forehead to stomach, breast to breast.
     Indeed, throughout these early episodes Irene is almost speechless, especially when her husband and mother try to comprehend where she has been each day. Irene’s dress and appearance, as she wanders, has become disheveled, her clothes those of a dowdy street person, and it is not long after, having discovered what she has been reading, that her mother warns her of her political sins and her husband begins to suspect that she has fallen in love with Andrea.
     Rossellini—although he has a great deal to tell us—does not lecture, dropping his major vocal provocateur, Andrea, soon after, while Irene acts more and more instinctually, herself wondering at times, whether she has lost her mind. Discovering a sickly prostitute, who she has met earlier on, and who has now just been beaten by her fellow street walkers. Irene takes her home, calling a doctor who tells her the girl, sick with tuberculosis, has only a few more days to live. This time, instead of returning “home,” Irene stays with the girl until she dies. When she goes next door to report the girl’s death to the neighbors who son had previously been ill, she finds an elder son holding them hostage with a gun. He has just attempted a nearly robbery. Suddenly finding new force within, she demands he hand her the gun as she helps him to escape, but also demands that he “turn himself into the police.”
     So much unconditional love, like that of St. Francis of Assisi, Rossellini hints, must eventually be checked in a world of Europe 1951, with its post-war consumerist and selfish values. The police arrest her, questioning her activities over the last several weeks. Accused of having had an affair with her cousin and/or others, she is freed only to be committed to a mental institution by her husband and family.
      For a few moments, it almost appears that Rossellini’s film might devolve into a work like Anatole Litvak’s overwrought The Snake Pit of three years before. But instead of reacting in horror and revulsion to the open and often hostile stares of her fellow inmates, Irene, having now truly reached a kind of saintliness, finds her new home a place for reflection and penance. When questioned by psychiatrists and judicators, Irene, with the kind of subtle sophistication of Joan of Arc, answers with both humility and cleverness. She does not see her role as a savior, does not embrace any of the ideologies which might have saved her, but, having truly found freedom, has created her own moral creed:

                    The love we feel for those closest to us, for those who should
                    be and maybe really are dearest to us, suddenly isn’t enough. It
                    seems too selfish, too narrow, so that we feel the to share it, to
                    make our love bigger, until it embraces everyone.

      It is a far too radical statement for the conventional society in which she lives, more radical than even the political and spiritual values expressed by others. She is condemned to live out her radical sanity in an institution devoted to curing her of her misconceptions. But Rossellini brilliantly demonstrates that she is now so free that she has been completely transformed. As her poor friends, on a visit to the institution to see her, chant below about her sainthood, the bars of her new prison seem almost to float away, to melt in the gentle smile of Irene’s inner vision. The woman who had no time to talk to her son, suddenly has all the time in the world to speak to those she loves, including her fellow prisoners.
      Clearly, Rossellini’s film, in this sense, was also too radical in its social and moral implications. Although there have been a few quite intelligent commentaries on the work, relatively little attention has been paid to this—one of the director’s most appealing and representative films—in comparison with the other two works which he created with his wife, Ingrid Bergman. Together, I would argue, these three films stand as some of the greatest works of post-war Italian cinema!

Los Angeles, November 20, 2013

1 comment:

  1. very nice appreciation. Rossellini is such a great and intelligent director. Flowers of St. Francis is one of my 10 all time favorite films.