This is one of those movies that I think is gonna proliferate toward the end of the decade, where, rather than ringing some resonant emotional gong with audiences, the movie’s being championed and studied because it’s a portrait of what an influential figure (director Roberto Rossellini, in this case) was trying to communicate about a particular moment in history. Also, it stars Ingrid Bergman, who at this point was married to the director after their scandalous affair on the set of Stromboli led to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a heated divorce, scorn from fucking Congress. Crazy shit. So there’s an element of biographical interest for movie buffs. The confrontational director and the scorned celebrity he ran away with.
Rossellini is still essentially a social filmmaker but he’s shifted his focus from the visceral theater of war (which he showed in Open City and Paisan) to the postwar landscape of eenui and distraction, but Bergman, finally, is the most interesting presence—mainly because she’s both recognizable and not.
I think that, prior to this, she’s only appeared on the List in Casablanca and Gaslight and Notorious and that in all of those movies she’s had to emote in such a way that there could be no ambiguity as to what she was thinking or feeling. Rossellini lets her kinda glide through scenes here, griefstruck in the wake of her young son’s sudden death, and she’s got this quiet pensive gaze in response to the pivotal moments of her subsequent immersion (as spectator and helper) into a world of poverty.
The biographical context of its artists is really the only basis on which I can relate to the movie, seeing as I know virtually nothing of the era, and, without denouncing these more socially-minded narratives that’ve appeared on the List to date, I do think I can say, at this point, that there’s some unnameable absence when you know that the filmmaker cares more about the point he’s making than he cares about the action, the characters, the artistry. There’s a strange blend of it in the 1930s, with movies like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, where the filmmakers, though talented and artful and brilliant in telling their stories, are crunched on by censors and so have to turn their story into some kind of social creed.
The vibe I’m getting from Europe 51—which is about an affluent couple of Italian socialites who, after the death of their son, deal with their grief in different ways—is that it’s an interesting example of the director and star taking a film in different directions. Constructively. I think Rossellini is trying to make some statement about, as Criterion puts it, “modern sainthood,” and maybe something about a kind of willful amnesia about how much things have changed, while Bergman is carrying the movie in the direction of character study.
What it brings to mind is a short story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, I think it’s called “The Devil is a Busy Man,” about a father and son who are puzzling over how to get rid of a refrigerator. They list it as “free” in the classifieds, roll it outside, and people come around looking suspicious. They study every inch of it. Ask what’s wrong with it. A couple days later they decides to list the refrigerator again as $5. When they do this, people storm the lawn, everybody bidding on it.
Something about people just not trusting your kindness.
I guess that’s what this movie is getting at? The war is over and so socialites are back to ignoring the impoverished—except the poverty is worse than ever now because there are so many people who never got their footing back after the war.
It’s also interesting to see Bergman shot without any sort of camera trickery about her height. I’m sure “statuesque” is a word often used, but in her Hollywood films it seems there was always some trick in place to make sure she didn’t appear taller than the leading man. She’s only 5’9” but there’s something about her walk, once she’s been committed to a mental institution toward the end, that’s powerful and looming but also humble.
It’s an interesting movie, empirically, but I’m just not that interested.