Europa '51 (1952)
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Only a few of the films that grew from the notorious liaison between actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini were truly worthy of their talents. One such was the Italian-made Europa '51. Playing a character far older than herself, Bergman portrays a society woman whose life is in ruins after her son's suicide. Attempting to give her life some purpose, she takes the advice of a leftist friend, and begins working with the ill and destitute of Rome. Her insensitive husband Alexander Knox finds Bergman's charitable activities distasteful; when the opportunity presents itself, he has her committed to a mental institution. By the time Europa '51 was released in the US in 1954, its title -- and much of its political ideology -- had been outdated. The film was pared from 118 to 110 minutes for US consumption, and retitled The Greatest Love. … More
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Critic Reviews for Europa '51
Audience Reviews for Europa '51
Despite its noble intentions, this preachy film was clearly made as a vehicle for Rossellini's marxist discourse - and not only it relies on a contrived premise that is hard to buy but also has a very heavy-handed execution, with a clumsy dialogue and a terrible lack of subtlety.
Europa 51 has a big heart, this much is clear. It's a story where Rossellini and his collaborators want to pose a basic question: what does someone have to do, like literally do with their own hands and wills and TIME, actually taking time and energy out of their days, to make a difference for people? The question may be surrounded by an, arguably, heavy-handed set-up, where Ingrid Bergman plays an ambassador's wife in Italy, and their son, a bit of a spoiled mama's boy (or, no, maybe he's just the sensitive sort, you pick, but either way not dubbed particularly well), dies accidentally. Bergman's Irene can't stand herself for what has happened - all her time being a dilettante and not spending enough time with her son made this happen - and she can barely go on.
Someone, a friend who has Communist ties, tries to convince her that perhaps it's time to make a change amid this time of Societal Upheaval (in caps) as political sides are being more sharply drawn. She sees how people suffer, and a day at a factory basically makes her completely light-headed (a montage of images, if memory serves, makes this clear). She wants to help. Maybe if she puts her energies to positive use, to help others, she can... what, find some solace? Alleviate her guilt? Or that now she can't be a mother to her son - and there's not much effort between her and her husband to find love again - so why not be a Mother to others? It's a little more difficult than that, of course, which is the riding factor of conflict in the narrative.
Bergman plays this character with all of the beats just right. Early on in those first scenes with her and her son you might wonder whether the writing isn't totally clear - IS she being a bad mother, or is he just whining, or is it a little 'much' determining either, who knows - but she plays it just right, this woman in her life who has it all and doesn't have to worry about much. This includes hearing conversations about class struggles (this before she sees them first hand) and can barely comprehend it. How Bergman channels grief is even better, showing us a face that has the life totally drained out, and she is always *listening* as an actress too to what's around her, and is a strong listener which is key. Ironic then that many of these, almost all of them, are speaking Italian and are dubbed over - this includes Giuletta Masina, who plays a local housewife.
Not all of the writing is superb here, at least for me. It's surprisingly melodramatic in its last quarter as Irene is looked at as being completely crazy (possibly, borderline, criminal) in how she's helping these people, which includes keeping one man evading prosecution in her home. I have to wonder if this story could work today, though a filmmaker like Scorsese, one of Rossellini's disciples, sort of made his version with Bringing Out the Dead - a protagonist who is haunted by death and wants to make a difference. It is a very hard thing to be saintly, or just be a decent person when there are many, many indecent things and people that go about in this world, certainly in this context post-war, post-fascist-cum-Communist Italy.
There's a lot to digest here, even if some of it may come off as dated or simplistic. But, once again as with Stromboli, the combination of a director with a clear, very moral message, and an actress giving it her ALL (and it's a case where Bergman does give one of her best performances from this period, even if the film isn't), that you can watch it and be wrapped up in this woman's drama.
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