Europa ’51 (Rossellini, 1952)

In Europa ’51, Roberto Rossellini subverts his own neo-realism roots to indict the complacency and ignorance of the post-war elite, church, and bureaucracy. He uses stars, including his own wife Ingrid Bergman and the Italian star Giulietta Masina, yet still retains his potency toward expressing complex ideas. Rossellini’s protagonist, Irene (Bergman), lives a shallow and callow life with her rich husband, whiney kids, and lavish house. After a family tragedy, she’s forced out of her shell and into the harsh world beyond the jewels and dinner parties. Irene soon realizes the world offers more important chances at humanity than wealthy life affords her. She chooses to open her eyes toward the social ills plaguing post WWII Italy and puts herself into the lives of the common citizen. Irene sees first hand the societal reverberations of the war and attempts to help out in any ways she can. Rossellini does not paint the poor as helpless either, instead showing them as gracious of Irene’s attention and acknowledgment. Irene’s rich family doesn’t fare so well, and along with the church and the police, make up a trio of disjointed, selfish, and close-minded institutions that ultimately hinder Irene from exploring the outside world and making a difference. Europa ’51 is a character piece at heart and Bergman gives a subtle and tragic performance. But the Rossellini discourse always remains in Irene’s gaze, her eyes wondering why so many outsiders step in her way when all she’s trying to do is understand the disenfranchised majority. Inevitably, she becomes a martyr, but not in the traditional sense. Irene, trapped by the bars of the final image, smiles and waves at her last visitors, realizing she’s found guidance not through double talk and promises of her rich kin, but through the screams and laughter of the supposedly wretched poor.


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