Rossellini #3: Europa ’51 (Italy 1952)

Rossellini on set with Ingrid Bergman and an unknown cast member in 'Europa '51' from:

Rossellini on set with Ingrid Bergman and an unknown cast member in ‘Europa ’51’ from:

Europa ’51 is an extraordinary film. It’s quite difficult to see outside Italy – although it has appeared on TCM in the US, the only DVD available does not have English subtitles according to Amazon’s contributors. I was overjoyed to stumble across a version online with English subs. It is an important picture from the period of Roberto Rossellini’s output during his relationship with Ingrid Bergman. In some ways it offers a link between Stromboli (1950) and Viaggio in Italia (1953), in others it relates to both Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950) and to the earlier neo-realist films of both Rossellini himself and Vittorio de Sica.

It was conceived as a commercial proposition – backed by the combination of Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis (for Lux Films), already producers who would go on to be the major figures in Italian production in the 1950s and 1960s. For Rossellini it was a very ‘personal’ project. In 1950 he married Ingrid Bergman soon after their son Robertino was born. The twins Isabella and Isotta Ingrid followed in 1952. Bergman scandalised American society when she left her first husband and her young daughter to live with Rossellini. This ‘betrayal’ was compounded by the ‘secondary circulation’ of Bergman’s star image which was informed by her roles as a nun in The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) and as Joan of Arc (1948). Stromboli had been financed by RKO in 1950 and had been a commercial flop in America. Europa ’51 was given the title The Greatest Love when it was eventually released in the US in 1954. Bergman’s husband in the film is played by Alexander Knox, the Canadian actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period in Hollywood. As with the other Rossellini-Bergman films, there were different cuts of the film for different markets. I saw the Italian cut in which Bergman and Knox are dubbed by Italian actors. There is also a version in which they dub themselves in English (the version seen in the US, I think). Rossellini created the film’s story himself and he co-wrote the script with several collaborators, some of whom, including possibly Federico Fellini, were uncredited. The music score, for what is certainly a melodrama, is by Rossellini’s younger brother Renzo and the cinematography – a major feature of the film – is by Aldo Tonti.

Outline (Some spoilers, but this isn’t a plot-driven film as such)

Irene and George Girard (Bergman and Knox) are a wealthy couple living in a spacious Roman apartment with servants and the use of luxury cars to get about the city. He is an American acting as the Rome representative of an American corporation. Irene’s family background is more complex. Her mother comes over from America, but she seems to have Italian relatives as well and she spent the war in London with her young son.

The film actually opens with an elderly couple on the Rome streets complaining about having to walk because of a transport strike. Irene then appears driving her luxury car (I wish I knew more about these models – it looks like a Bentley/Rolls/Jaguar). She is late because of the traffic problems and doesn’t have much time for her son Michele who has been home all day. There is a dinner party to be organised and Irene is busy. But during the dinner there is a dramatic incident that ends in tragedy and the boy dies after being hospitalised. Irene is distraught, blaming herself for his death and this ends the first part of the film.

Irene down by the river close to the shanty town and new-build blocks where she seeks some kind of penance.

Irene down by the river close to the shanty town and new-build blocks where she seeks some kind of penance.

Struggling to regain her confidence after days of retreating to her bed, Irene turns away from her family and goes to meet her cousin Andrea who is a campaigning journalist and a communist. He urges her to face the world and he tells her about a recent case covered by his paper of a child in a desperate condition because his family can’t afford the necessary medicine. Irene and Andrea visit the family and soon Irene is involved with a community of new migrants to the city living in the newly-built apartment blocks on the outskirts of the city in a district similar to that where De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is set. George and Irene’s other friends and family become increasingly concerned about Irene’s behaviour. This central section of the narrative reaches a climax at the end of which Irene is arrested because she has helped a young man escape from the police (though she has urged him to turn himself in). In the final third of the film, Irene’s relatives and the authorities conspire to place her ‘in care’ in a psychiatric institution.


There are many ways in which to approach this film. In thematic/ideological terms it represents the tension between Catholicism and Marxism that seems to underpin the critical reaction to Rossellini’s work. It’s noticeable in the film how both the Marxist journalist and the Catholic priest are at a loss with how to respond to Irene’s behaviour in the latter part of the narrative. Rossellini’s aim appears to have been to explore what would happen if a figure like the 14th century San Francesco was to help the poor in contemporary Rome. Rossellini had just completed Francesco guillare di Dio (Francis, God’s jester) with a script he wrote himself with Federico Fellini. Francesco and his band of brothers represent the incarnation of love for all living things, impossible to beat down and always joyous. In what was perceived as the desperate and cynical world of post-war Italy – and indeed of Europe as a whole – the prospect of Franciscan love for community must have seemed attractive. In his commentary on the film from My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese quotes Rossellini as stating in 1963 in relation to Europa ’51 that, “People can now only live in ‘society’ not in a community. The soul of society is the law, the soul of community is love”.

The Italian poster for the film emphasises the conventional melodrama device in which the woman looks into the mirror, creating two versions of herself.

The Italian poster for the film emphasises the conventional melodrama device in which the woman looks into the mirror, creating two versions of herself.

This is a powerful thematic and it is one of the foundations of the film’s greatness. Another is the luminous performance of Ingrid Bergman and the third is Rossellini’s aesthetic strategy. After the opening scenes in the opulent apartment that suggest traditional modes of melodrama, the scenes when Irene visits the shanty towns and new-build ‘worker’s flats’ move directly into neo-realist imagery. At one point, Irene spends a day working in a factory so that a woman with six children (played by Giulietta Masina) can look for a better job. This is an extraordinary expressionist sequence reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times or Lang’s Metropolis. Europa ’51 is a full-blown melodrama and towards the end of the film Bergman becomes a saint in visual terms. She had already played Joan of Arc in Hollywood and she was around this time also touring with a stage presentation of Joan at the stake for Rossellini. The couple made their Joan film in 1954. Credit for the transformation must go to cinematographer Aldo Tonti as well as to Bergman herself and it doesn’t seem excessive to claim that the film’s narrative development is played out through the changing presentation of Bergman’s extraordinary face.

I haven’t been so impressed by discovery of a ‘classic’ film for a very long time. If you get the chance, do watch this film.

In researching this film I came across this excellent collection of posts on Rossellini’s films with useful screengrabs.


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