So this film is arguably the result of a fan letter.
In 1948, Ingrid Bergman was coming off a couple films with Alfred Hitchcock (Spellbound among them) and a biopic about Joan of Arc. But the films she liked watching were Italian neo-Realist works like Rome, Open City and Paisan. She was so fond of these two films in particular that she wrote to director Roberto Rossellini, declaring her admiration and making a proposition: “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ti amo, I am ready to come and make a film with you.” Europa ’51 was the second of five films the pair ultimately made; the pair also fell in love while working together, a state of affairs which caused something of a scandal at the time. Bergman working in Rossellini’s film was already controversial enough – his whole approach was to use unknown actors and to semi-improvise the scenes, but Bergman was a Movie Star with a capital “M” and “S”, and some felt Rossellini was selling out.
Now – I’m all for creative people stretching their wings a bit and trying new things. Ingrid Bergman wanted to try neo-Realism, and she got to do that and that’s great. She met the man that would be the father of two of her daughters and that’s also great. So I speak strictly of the film itself when I say that maybe….maybe Ingrid Bergman should have reconsidered.
Not that she doesn’t give a fine performance, and not that the story isn’t an interesting idea. Rossellini was inspired by the hagiography of St. Francis of Assisi, particularly by the fact that Francis was born into a life of privilege and enjoyed a wealth and comfortable life before a sudden shock turned him towards a life of charity and love for his fellow man. Rossellini wanted to explore what would happen if someone like that lived in post-War Rome; how their actions would be perceived and how they would be treated. In this case, Bergman is our Francis stand-in, Irene Girard; she and her son Michel (Sandro Franchina) were on the run during the war, but are now living large after Irene’s marriage to George (Alexander Knox), a wealthy factory owner. Michel doesn’t miss the war, but does miss the devoted attention Irene gave him, and spends most of his time moping around the house and being miserable while Irene and George live a jet-setter’s life. In fact, Michel is so miserable that he throws himself down the stairs during one of his parents’ dinner parties, dying later that night.
A devastated Irene holes up for ten days, and George enlists Irene’s cousin Andrea (Ettore Giannini) to help snap her out of it. Andrea is a leftist and a Communist, and immediately decides that what would help Irene is to spend some time in service; he takes her to meet some of the poor families in Rome’s slums and ghettos, quietly hinting that “this family would be a lot happier if they had the money to afford a doctor visit for their son” or “this single mother just needs someone to put in a good word for her to get her a job”. Irene immediately jumps in to help in both cases, even offering herself to cover someone’s shift in a factory so they can care for an ailing son. Seeing how the poor in Rome live is opening her eyes to her own privilege, and helping them is giving her a sense of purpose.
However, when she abandons her house for ten days to be the live-in nurse to a prostitute with tuberculosis, George and Andrea start worrying that maybe she’s getting a little…obsessed. And George starts to look into whether there may be something mentally wrong with her, and what to do about it.
Again, Bergman is luminously lovely in this, and gives a fine performance. And the story is an interesting one (although the “what if this saint was alive today” trope isn’t that new). I’m just not sure whether Italian neo-Realism was the best way to tell that story, nor am I certain Bergman fits into an Italian neo-Realist film. You never really lose sight of the fact that it’s Ingrid Bergman – which detracts from the whole idea of neo-Realism in the first place; you’re supposed to feel like you’re watching something not that scripted and with people that seem more like regular-folks. And Ingrid Bergman never quite gets to the point of being regular-folks enough, just by virtue of her being Ingrid Bergman. Something about how she carries herself still says “Hollywood” as opposed to “Rome”. Her bearing does help a bit when she’s first mixing with the poor families; they treat her like a social superior, which comes across as their being a little star-struck. And she certainly inspires star-struck behavior. However, the end has a bit of a “Hollywood” touch that suits Ingrid Bergman’s “movie star” bearing, but feels all wrong for neo-Realism.
It felt like either Bergman should have worked with a different director, or Rossellini with a different actress.