January 25, 2009

Europa 51

Part of the British Film Institute's Ingrid Bergman season, Europa 51 is a collaboration between the great actress and her lover, the director Roberto Rosselini. The film opens in an apartment in Rome where a wealthy bourgeoise couple- played by Bergman and Alexander Knox- are having a dinner party. Thanks to traffic, Bergman's character, Irene has arrived late home and George her husband and Michel her son both want and need her attention: George to prepare for the party and Michel because he is upset. She neglects the son to prioritise the party and quickly dresses- however during the party, Michel falls down the stairs and eventually dies. The film then becomes a story about Irene's response- she becomes a servant of all she meets particularly the poor, supporting a boy going to hospital with her money, helping a young mother to get and retain a job, aiding a prostitute in her last hours and performing countless other acts of kindness. She eschews the simple Marxist prognosis of her cousin Andrea, and instead cleaves to a religious and spiritual (yet non-denominational) renaissance which provides her with a meaning for her life. It also alienates her family: more and more they are distressed by what she has done, her husband is estranged gradually, her mother uncomprehending and various other members of her social circle criticise her as she abandons convention.

Irene's behaviour is touched off by the tragedy of her son's death- a death which is caused by the Oedipal jealousy that Michel feels for George- but its consequences are profound. Irene is faced with three options as a consequence of Michel's death: the first is to continue in the route that she has lived through in Rome, the life of a bourgeoise, a life ringed with dinner parties and triviality, that relegates the condition of the poor to being a subject for after dinner and finds more entertainment in frivolity. The second is to become a Marxist- who sees a system opressing the poor and responds in Irene's words by teaching the poor to hate the rich- the alternative does not attract Irene because it does not deal with the spiritual life of the poor and nor does it meet her real need, for a philosophy that can embrace the dead Michel as much the living suffering excluded citizens of Rome. Lastly she reaches a kind of individualistic Christianity- similar to that Rosselini discussed in Francesco Guilare di Dio- she recognises that the only route to salvation lies in becoming a holy fool.

The film is about the response of the rest of society to that decision: significantly of course what Irene finds is that being a holy fool is incompatible with modern capitalistic society. It is incompatible with modern morality- how for instance can she explain to her husband that she has deserted him to live with an ailing prostitute? The policeman suspects that when she appealed to a criminal to surrender himself and aided him to escape so that he would not be arrested with his family, she was infatuated with the criminal and not seeking his redemption. There are a thousand other examples where Irene's actions are either unbelievable or imprudent: this is a woman who is quite happy to give up an entire day so that another woman can go off to have a night with her boyfriend, a woman who never condemns, but who takes others as she finds them with all their sins. A woman who finds ultimately two truths to be central to her life: the first being that she has nothing but contempt for herself- that to quote Cromwell she is the 'worst of sinners'- and finds that as a resource to comfort others and who secondly decides that she cannot love those that are close to her unless she loves everyone, who finds that she cannot excuse the faults of those who are close to her (as her husband does with her) unless she can excuse the faults of all those who suffer and sin (including prostitutes and theives).

The Christian imagery pervades this film- Rosselini was seeking to see whether a St Francis could live in modern society and what he found was that she or he could, but only behind the gates of a mental asylum. Perhaps more impressive is what he finds as the content of the Christian message- like Bergman, Rosselini took refuge in the sense that the heart of Christianity was love- that everything else came second and should come second- and for Rosselini it is the practical and unjudging charity of Irene that is the centre of the Christian message. The priest in this drama is reduced to mumbling bourgeois banalities- and the Catholic church is at its most impressive only when it too recalls the medieval saints, it is religious in its ceremonies and yet not in its sanctimonies.

The film makes this point in lots of interesting ways. Firstly there are the spectacular performances- Ingrid Bergman was at the top of her proffession with such masterpieces as Notorious and Casablanca behind her and Autumn Sonata to come. Alexander Knox as her husband is equally impressive- his subtle and thoughtful performance is a wonder to watch and should be better known. Teresa Pellati as the prostitute, Ines, does a fine job. Some of the other performances particularly of the proletarian characters and Andrea the Marxist cousin do not work as well- Rosselini has partly romanticised the working classes here. Secondly though there is the direction- the use of shot is interesting. Rosselini indicates the shape of the story through his use of lighting and camera angles: so when Irene and George discuss her reaction to Michel's death, her face is clouded in shadow whilst his is lit fully denoting the fact that her reaction is more mysterious than his conventional grief and insistance that life must go on. Thirdly though the script occasionally particularly in the working class scenes is mawkish, at other points it is sublime- Bergman is given a wonderful speech to explain herself to a judge towards the end of the film which is one of the keys to understanding her freedom as a fool.

These three elements would mean nothing though without Rosselini's mind controlling and gathering the threads of his story: this is a film about the difficult subjects- love, religion, charity and the meaning of freedom- set in modernity. It is a film under the shadow of war and industrialisation- a film about a society where children have heard the bombs fall and where factories ressemble in their brutal mechanisation the machines of destruction. What Rosselini offers, like Bresson, is a Dosteovskyan message- a message that is difficult to homogenise with our categories of political thinking- that ethics not politics is the only way to rebuild something out of the chaos of modernity. That the ethical will be rejected and destroyed, but serene in their vanquished state. It is an argument that is suffused with a religion of a particular kind- which sees the centre of Christianity in love- the answer for Bergman to Neitsche's declaration of God's death was to declare that love did exist- and in a sense that is Rosselini's answer too. Abandoning prescription, the film is both a diagnosis of the condition of society- and the way that it is unethical and brutal- and a call to a renewed ethics. It has no politics- and Irene's religion is not prescriptive- but emancipatory and based on love.

Even if, like me, you do not accept the divine instigator that lies behind Irene's conversion, the argument that ultimately the only way to cope with modernism is to turn to ethics is an important one and an appealing one. Irene's life and personality may be utopian- like every holy fool before her and since- but it is an important thought experiment for it reminds us of how selfish and unloving our relationships with strangers often are.