In one of the extras on the War Trilogy DVDs, somebody mentions the progression of location-specific titles in Rossellini’s films – from a city in Rome Open City, moving out to multiple cities in Paisan, to a country in Germany Year Zero, to an entire continent in Europa ’51. I had that in mind, also thinking of it as Ingrid Bergman’s followup to the island-landscape picture Stromboli, so was surprised that Europa goes smaller-scale, starting with a single upper-class family and ultimately focusing on one individual. It seems to be about compassion in modern society, which makes it more properly a follow-up to RR’s Flowers of St. Francis than Stromboli.
Irene (Bergman) and George (Alexander Knox, blacklisted in the US, later in Losey pictures) are wealthy enough to not have to deal directly with their sensitive son, leaving his care to teachers and housekeepers. George is sort of a motherfucker in general, won’t listen to anyone but himself, but he seems alright in small doses. Anyway, their son is tired of the constant neglect and throws himself down the stairs, dying soon after.
Irene’s friend Andrea (a male name in Italian, played by writer/director Ettore Giannini) tells her the fatal fall was probably on purpose, and she reacts violently: “Oh George, we should change everything in our life!” Everyone else moves on, and it doesn’t take long before they’re chastising Irene for her manners instead of understanding her grief. She asks Andrea how she can help other children and he leads her to the slums, where the Galli family has a sick child who needs money for medicine.
She spends more time down there, meets local prostitute Ines and poor but joyous mother (and adoptive mother) Passerotto (La Strada star Giulietta Masina). Irene covers for a day at Passerotto’s new factory job, comes home angry, saying factory work is “an horrendous condemnation. And to think they want to raise work to a godlike status,” argues about it with communist Andrea, then goes back out in her mission to help humanity and atone for being a poor mother.
Giulietta Masina won’t stop talking long enough to take a screenshot:
Comes across Ines on the street, very sick with TB, takes her home and stays with her. But when Ines dies, Irene finds herself in the middle of a new neighborhood crisis, helping a criminal escape and getting rewarded with prison, then an asylum. Here the movie comes across as slightly obvious, when the psychologists decide to keep her locked up indefinitely because they can’t comprehend her selflessness, saying their mission is to “defend society as it is,” the last word on the subject being yelled outside the gates by Passerotto: “She’s a saint!”
Science vs. Compassion:
I was going to call it The Passion of Ingrid Bergman, forgetting that a couple years later, Rossellini and Bergman would make an actual Joan of Arc film. Instead, TCM confirms my thoughts about St. Francis with a Bergman quote (paraphrasing RR speaking to her): “I am going to make a story about Saint Francis and [Francis is] going to be you. It was just how we would behave in ’51 if a woman gives up a rich husband, a rich life, all her friends, everything, and goes out into the street to help the poor.” I guess critics have called it uneven, but I found it so much more interesting and less grating than Stromboli that I didn’t notice.