Extremely earnest and strangely abstract, Roberto Rosellini's Europa 51 is defeated I think by its own seriousness and Ingrid Bergman's obvious discomfort with the part that she is required to play. The film is important, I think, and very interesting but unsuccessful. (The picture is also hard to evaluate because it is dubbed into English so very poorly -- the different accents make no sense at all. For instance, Bergman's character is the daughter of a refined American woman with spectacularly undulating hair -- but Bergman seems to be speaking her part in heavily accented English while her mother talks with a British accent.)
Rossellini's story, which the director wrote, is a parable that has the flavor of late Tolstoy. A society woman living in Rome is grief-stricken when her 12-year old son attempts suicide and, then, dies, later, in the hospital. The woman, Irene (Bergman), takes to her bed for several months and, then, associates with a Communist who preaches to her the need for revolution. Irene works with the poor, buying medicine for slum children, and tends to a dying prostitute. When her Communist friend, probably previously a lover, suggests the need for violent revolution, she abandons political solutions to human suffering. Alarmed at her asceticism and generosity to the poor, Irene's husband, George, has her committed to an insane asylum. There she devotes herself to helping the mentally ill. At a hearing, representatives of the church, society, and the doctor in charge of the mental hospital, all urge that Irene be permanently committed -- she is regarded as irredeemably insane and some sort of danger to herself and others, although, of course, there is nothing wrong with her at all. The Court orders her permanently committed. Irene is locked away and, in the final scene, looks down smiling at a crowd of poor people who have come to visit her -- she smiles slightly and the final shot shows a group of children gazing up at her intently.
Rossellini's approach to this material is austere and lucid. I don't recall any camera movement and there is no expressionistic play of light and shadow -- with a couple exceptions (night scene filmed in Roman piazzas), the movie takes place in clear, clinical light. There are some notable images of desolation but they are documentary in character -- some scenes take place on the edges of the city in the wastelands around gruesome-looking high-rises where the poor live; there is a river and industrial desolation and, at one point, a group of children play around a dead body fished out of the water. An episode in which Irene works in a factory has something of the quality of Metropolis, there are vast atriums with sinister-looking figures engaged in surveillance of the workers and enormous spinning rotors. (When Irene is asked about the factory, she is speechless; she simply bursts into tears recalling its dehumanizing nature.) Rossellini has a habit of filming characters, particularly Irene, against bare white walls, creating an effect of sanctity -- the faces appear against a white void.
A film of enormous emotional integrity, Rossellini doesn't cheat -- his characters are mostly unpleasant and his heroine, also, seems deeply flawed. Although Irene acts like a saint, I assume, that most saints were, in fact, deeply problematic people and there is no effort made to glamorize the heroine's conversion -- she is demanding and nasty as a society woman and negligent, self-centered, and irritating as a saint. Her son, who's suicide attempt precipitates the crisis, is a spoiled brat -- like little Marcel Proust, he lies in bed during his parent's dinner party, repeatedly demanding that his mother come from the gathering to comfort him. When his mother suggests that he needs to grow-up and "be a man", he impulsively flings himself down a stairwell to punish her. There are hints, some of them none too subtle, that the relationship between mother and son is potentially incestuous. The poor people that Irene helps are similarly demanding, loud, and aggressive in exploiting her. Irene's husband is selfish and suspects his wife of an affair with the brash and aggressive Communist -- in fact, there is a suggestion that Irene and the Communist have been lovers at some point before the story begins. However, the husband misses the point -- Irene's affair with the Communist precedes her emotional crisis and she turns out to be as much a pain-in-the-ass and burden to the Communist as she is to her husband when she rejects his arguments that a social utopia, a paradise on earth, can arise from violent revolution. The dying prostitute for whom Irene cares is similarly realistically conceived -- the rest of the poor people in the tenement despise her and she's a tough cookie: some of her last words are to denounce her neighbors as being a pack of thieves. (There's a good moment when a smarmy young pharmacist, who seems to have enjoyed the prostitute's favors, delivers some medication to her squalid apartment. Irene tries to pay him, but he says: "Around here, we do things on credit.") Bergman herself is shot to look gaunt and exudes a sort of thin-lipped, taut reproach -- she is filmed to appear like a harridan. Rossellini's larger point is that the spiritual crisis that Irene embodies is endemic to post-war Europe, hence the film's title. Irene and her son have been traumatized by aerial bombardments -- indeed, the boy's clinging to his mother is a result of sleeping together in bomb shelters. Europe is post-Christian and teetering between Communism and aggressive US-style capitalism; at a dinner party, Irene seats the "Marshall Plan," an American, across from the Communist.
In 1950, Rossellini explored the themes in Europa 51 in a more felicitous film, Francis, Jester of God, a bio-pic about St. Frances of Assisi -- that movie, I think, addresses the post-war crisis of faith in Europe more obliquely and, therefore, more effectively. The ambition motivating Europa 51 can not be gainsaid. But the film is not wholly successful. Nonetheless, it is an important picture -- a critic has noted that alone among the major European film makers, Rossellini emerged from the war with the idea that, although the conflict had been horrific, it should not be nihilistically dismissed as utterly futile: until the end of his life, Rossellini hoped that a better world would come about as a result of the War and died in that faith.