Europa ’51 is one of those films butchered by time and yet eventually, it was stitched back together to resemble how it was intended to be viewed by its director. Its serpentine history to restoration hints at its subversive elements, although on the surface, it seems like a fairly common breed of drama about a middle-class family.
It reminds me somewhat of De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us purely because it provides a striking reminder neorealism is not only an exploration of those in abject poverty. It can be about those who have a relational or familial deficit too.
In this case, we begin with the one and only Ingrid Bergman. She returns home to the bustling preparation for a dinner party. A strike is tying up the local roads, and it’s only a minor inconvenience. The same might be said of her misanthropic son.
She hardly has time or patience for his concerns because there’s so much to do. She treats him with the kind of shortness and insensitivity you can hardly begrudge parents. It feels like a momentary lapse in priorities more than a callous act of neglect. Soon enough she’s with her husband and guests — one of them brings the conversation to politics and “leftists” — and it’s easy to leave childish trivialities behind.
Then, a catastrophic event shocks her, and the dormant maternal side reveals itself — one of warmth and affection. She racked with the kind of guilt you can never hope to placate. With the movie being so weepy at such an early juncture, there’s a question of where it might go, but Bergman remains the driving force. She goes searching for something…
On her pilgrimage, one of the people she finds is Giulietta Masina, playing a mother to all with a generous spirit and a heart of gold. She’s taken on far too many children, only some of them her own, but she loves them dearly, fussing over them and getting so much joy in providing for them. There’s a frantic charm to her as she busies herself and makes the household run in spite of her meager means. It’s appealing to Irene.
Meanwhile, her husband (Alexander Knox) remains mostly unfeeling, blowing his top when he perceives another man in her life. He fails to recognize this is the only man who has extended her any human kindness and understanding. For this and other sins, she winds up in a psych ward. Remember, we are trading in melodrama.
Irene comforts her tearful housekeeper with a newfound poise. She receives a visitation from the ward’s priest, and they share their mutual philosophies. Experience has led her to discover her own distinctive on what life is about: Love for ourselves feels too narrow; she feels compelled to reach out to others. Love has no limits. Evil is born from the fact we never give all our love to those who need it most.
Irene avoids questions from the priest about a God and his grace stating we must be filled with love for all so that all might be saved through love. The words ringing with the most resonancy go like this, “I came to earth not to lose sinners but to win them — the miracle of Christianity.”
Suddenly, I liked the movie more and more as Bergman’s developing character is revealed, and I learned Rosselini envisioned her out of the tenets of St. Francis of Assisi.
For the majority of my life, I’ve lived in a western, predominantly Christian society, where these core truths pervade the mindset in thought and word, if not entirely in our deeds. There continues to be a shift; many more people are unaffiliated with organized religion or don’t identify with a specific faith. Much of this makes sense as hypocrisy becomes more and more visible in the social media landscape.
I’m left curious. Instead of being swayed by the political or social movements of the day and age or their specific tribes and subcultures, either to fit in or to rage against the status quo, what if people decided to stand out in a far more radical way?
What if they actually took to heart the teaching to love their neighbors and God with all their heart, mind, and strength. Bergman feels a bit crazy, she is countercultural, and impossible to categorize: an exceptional anomaly.
She would play Joan of Arc later, but this is her first foray into the part of a modern-day saint who eschews and then slides beyond the conventions of her age. These kinds of characters fascinate me namely because they challenge my own convictions and hypocrisies. “How many men condemned by their society and burned at the stake in their day were right?” It’s a sobering question…