The love we feel for those closest to us, for those who should be and maybe really are dearest to us, suddenly isn’t enough. It seems too selfish, too narrow, so that we feel the need to share it, to make our love bigger, until it embraces everyone. —Irene, near the end of Europe ’51
At the heart of Roberto Rossellini’s art is a trio of crucial oppositions, between the humane and the inhumane, between active and frozen states of being, and between the narrowness of self-centered materialism and the limitlessness of a larger, all-embracing love. From the moments of near-miraculous cross-cultural understanding in Paisan (1946) to his revelatory engagements with key transitions in history in his 1960s television films, Rossellini always pursued notions of ever-enlarging awareness. And that pursuit was present not just in his narratives but visually as well. He abjures the pretty, perfectly composed image; his approach to film style is ceaselessly changing; his images always seem to be reaching beyond their borders.
This powerfully expansive vision is rooted in a dance of camera and character movements and in the shifting ways he uses imagery, a rough-edged, even somewhat deceptively offhanded, style that eschews the complacent, self-enclosed formalism of more traditional films—derived in part from the long histories of painting and still photography—for an anti-formalism that seeks to open out onto the depicted reality. The openness extends to his cuts, dissolves, and camera movements, which also serve to widen the context of what we see, each moment disrupting the last, almost like a wound that lets the world in. The effect of this boundary pushing, produced literally by the omnipresent zooms of his television films, is present in the visual intensity of his earlier films as well, as in the way images seem to press with preternatural intensity against their edges in Europe ’51 (1952).
The catastrophe of World War II had already made the world far too present for Europeans, devastating cities—as Rossellini shows in his neorealist War Trilogy—and slaughtering millions. As the nations of Western Europe began to restore democracy, the shadow of past devastation and the rise of consumerism led to a search for meaning. For Rossellini, that meant a move away from making films in, as he later put it, “bombed-out cities” and toward an exploration of contemporary problems, such as human pettiness and anomie. Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini came together at this time, after she wrote him expressing admiration for Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan, and offering to make a film with him. Their then scandalous union proved less than perfect, like the marriages depicted in the films they made together—films that, by presenting the woman in a marriage as undergoing profound spiritual transitions of her own, call the stability of that institution into question. In Stromboli (1950), Bergman plays a young wife whose consciousness is expanded by nature’s grandeur, while in Journey to Italy (1954), she portrays a character whose romantic longings look beyond her marriage, although they are still ultimately presented as naive and insufficient.
In Europe ’51, Rossellini’s key stance—a statement we truly need to hear today—is against the self-centered vanities of our complacent consumerist lives. Irene (Bergman), a wealthy housewife in Rome, is wrapped up in social engagements with her businessman husband, George (Alexander Knox), and neglects her young son Michel’s cries for attention. After his suicide attempt results in his later death, Irene comes to understand that her entire life has been a “mistake.” Trying “to find a way” with the help of her Communist cousin Andrea, she devotes herself to the poor. But she ultimately turns to Christianity, not Communism, because she wants a love that will “embrace everyone”—including her departed son—and so must find a spiritual path. This love leads her away from her family, but unlike Karin in Stromboli, she directs it not toward her experience of nature but toward others—as truly Christian love must be—even if, as a result, her doctors and her family will judge her mad and confine her to an asylum.
Rossellini cited several inspirations. One was the life of Saint Francis, the subject of his 1950 The Flowers of St. Francis. While shooting that film, he had wondered, “If Francis . . . came back to earth today, how would he be treated?” Actor Aldo Fabrizi suggested an answer, calling Francis “crazy.” Rossellini also mentioned a true story about a Roman black marketeer who, suddenly feeling “moral qualms,” turned himself in to the police—and soon found himself in a psychiatric hospital.
Irene loves her husband and son, at least in conventional terms. Her son’s demands are arguably a bit excessive, so she may seem justified in rebuffing them (though at the key moment when she does so, it is to attend a superficial dinner party). But the point of Rossellini’s story, and of his style, is that real love is not limited by the demands of one’s own ego; it seeks to acknowledge every part of the world and to bind everything together. This view recalls Freud’s explanation, in An Outline of Psychoanalysis, of Eros’s aim “to establish ever greater unities,” “to bind together”—as in the expansiveness of Rossellini’s style, the way editing and images seek to place images in larger and larger contexts.
Rossellini’s images are never pictures but windows onto something larger, and their function in the film often shifts, with one kind of image subtly critiquing another. In the opening shot of Europe ’51, Irene’s large automobile aggressively crosses the center of the frame, followed by a camera pan; next comes a head-on shot of Irene behind the windshield. These would be normal images in a typical film, but as Europe ’51 develops, they will come to feel unstable, mistaken, signs of an incorrect consciousness. Soon Irene enters her apartment in the foreground, looking down a large hallway, and this sets up a central motif: Irene not as the autonomous character of the initial automobile scene but as someone encountering a surrounding world larger than herself. Almost immediately, the film cuts to a shot with Irene at the center of the composition, as she moves down the hallway with her son and the housemaid, character positions shifting in a long take in which Irene even leaves Michel to check on a table set for a dinner party. This pattern of continually expanding the perspective to include more characters, more of the story, is continued with the next cut, to a centered close-up of a slightly annoyed George that evokes his own self-assertiveness, the opposite of the journey Irene will soon commence.
Key themes are already articulated: the pettiness of human ego and Irene’s shifting subjectivity. In Irene’s bedroom, Michel tries to talk to his mother while she does her hair, her reflection in a mirror standing for her vanity. A few moments later, as Irene is heard offscreen telling Michel of her disappointment with him, we see Michel pretend to strangle himself in the same mirror—suicide is also an act of self-absorbed vanity. The first topic we hear of at the dinner party involves the gift of a model train car for Michel, a characteristically bourgeois attempt to meet the need for love with an object. When an unimpressed Michel leaves the train car behind, the adults, admiring it, decide to try it out. The brief image of the train moving on a small circular track is another signpost, like the early close-ups and Irene’s mirror shot, of how not to live: fixed, closed, object-oriented, static, and unchangeable. These early overly composed images are soon echoed in a brief view up the circular stairwell after Michel has jumped, a dramatic shot that would not seem out of place in most films but that is used here to evoke bad consciousness, its self-enclosure seemingly denying wider contexts and suggesting the self-enclosure of the ego.
Isolating close-ups take on a different meaning after Michel dies. In the first intensely close one, of Irene in bed, the shot no longer evokes her self-centeredness; now, the passive depression visible in her face shows the self receding as she starts to reflect, as will happen with increasing intensity as the film develops, on the world around her. This becomes apparent when George, at her bedside, takes a business call in close-up; the contrast between that forceful and dramatically lit shot and the following, flatter close-up of Irene separates them long before they actually do.
In a fade-out–fade-in from a shot of Irene and George alone together to Irene and Andrea on a crowded bus, the implied contrast is not simply between spaciousness and overcrowding or rich and poor but between the static bourgeois order and the energy of life. Irene’s transformation in the remainder of the film is very much along Christian lines, not necessarily the Christianity of institutional churches but rather that of the Jesus of the Gospels: she offers unconditional aid and love to anyone who needs it, expecting nothing in return. Other characters are shown as representing the opposite of Irene’s pure love, as in the initial panicked self-absorption of the fleeing thief she helps and the anger and jealousy of George, while Rossellini’s judgment of society takes the form of the unquestioning, even complacent, manner in which Irene is pegged as insane by a doctor and her family.
Almost halfway through the film, we dissolve from Irene’s face looking up to a head-on close-up set against the sky, her eyes moving right, signaling a key turning point: she is now actively, powerfully involved with her environment. Soon we see her from behind, apartment blocks in the distance, rotating in space as a way of embracing all that’s around her, her face looking outward rather than locked within. When she agrees to do a day of factory work, a cut from her looking at a machine to what at first seems to be a point-of-view shot is transformed as a camera movement reveals Irene standing by the machine: she is now immersed in a locale we thought she was only looking at. The identities of the observer and the participant have become blurred; no longer a rich woman trying to help the poor from the outside, she is a worker herself.
Having rejected Andrea’s way, Irene enters a church, and though we hear music, the first we see of much of the church is in a dissolve from Irene’s face to a huge array of candles, infusing her identity with religion. Following this scene, however, Rossellini redirects Irene away from institutional religion, as he has from institutional communism, to the concern for others that is what he values in both ideologies. Leaving her family with no knowledge of her whereabouts, she tends to a dying prostitute. “I’ve been imagining the most terrible things,” Irene’s mother says to George in her absence—and then we cut not to an image of Irene in trouble but to the prostitute receiving the last rites. By deflecting our attention to the woman truly in need, and in an abrupt cut rather than a dissolve, Rossellini reminds us that Irene has abandoned a world in which the sympathies of the wealthy are only for each other. Later, asked why she chose to be with a prostitute, Irene is seen in another extreme head-on close-up, with an almost blank background, saying, “Perhaps I don’t know”—a kind of zero point in her spiritual evolution, kin in some ways to Karin’s state at the end of Stromboli, an anti-hubristic admission of human limits that the close-up, in a reversal of its usual function of emphasizing personality, now reveals.
Several point-of-view shots as the institutionalized Irene explores her hospital corridor, the camera moving to show her shifting gaze, are also revealing. A point-of-view shot often indicates the observer’s power over the world, as eyes discover and learn. Here the other patients stare back at Irene, into the camera, and once again the environment impinges on her, enters her; she is less observer than subject, recalling a bit the more subjective use of POV shots in horror films. But any fears Irene may feel are quickly overcome when, in a long shot showing her seated amid the patients, she is again immersed. And after a woman attempts suicide, intercut close-ups of the two are followed by a shot of them together, their faces touching as Irene embraces the woman and tells her, “You are not alone . . . I’ll stay with you,” echoing her promise to her son just before his death, and also connecting the two more integrally than the close-ups could.
Finally, seen behind a barred window in the asylum, Irene looks out on her new friends, who have come to visit. The cumulative effect of Rossellini’s intensely expansive anti-formalism, his cinematic evocation of all-embracing love, is now brought to a spectacular conclusion: as intercutting grafts the barred-window image onto the vibrancy of the poor looking up at Irene from the roadway, the frame ripples with a tension between the bars and the film’s defiance of limits that almost blows it apart.
Fred Camper is an artist who makes digital prints, mostly photo-based, and has for many decades been a writer and lecturer on film and art. He lives in Chicago, where he teaches at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His website is www.fredcamper.com.