Martyrdom, Italian Style

Ingrid Bergman in Europe ’51 (1952), directed by Roberto Rossellini.

The second film collaboration between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, Europe ’51 (1952) might be the most overlooked and misunderstood feature of the famous director-actress team during their turbulent and controversial relationship. Between 1950 and 1955, the couple made five features together and one episode for the five chapter compilation film, We, the Women (1953). Although most film critics seem to regard 1954’s Journey to Italy as their peak achievement, Europe ’51 (aka Europa ’51) received a second chance at reappraisal in September 2013, thanks to The Criterion Collection, which released the film on Blu-Ray and DVD in a set with Stromboli (the first Bergman-Rossellini film from 1950) and Journey to Italy (aka Viaggio in Italia, 1953) .    

Synopsis: The life of a wealthy American woman (Ingrid Bergman) living in Rome is thrown into turmoil when her young son commits suicide over what he perceived as her lack of affection for him. The woman’s grief leads her to the realization that she has been living a shallow, privileged existence and it propels her to change her ways. As if on a spiritual quest, she begins devoting her life to helping the less fortunate – a sick prostitute, an unwed mother with numerous children – all of which disturbs her husband (Alexander Knox). When she helps a delinquent youth escape from the police, her husband deems her mentally unbalanced and has her committed to an asylum for life.

Ingrid Bergman and Alexander Knox star in the 1952 drama, Europe ’51, directed by Roberto Rossellini.

For many years, Europe ’51 was dismissed by critics as a flawed and overtly didactic movie that lacked the passion of Stromboli or the artistry of Voyage to Italy. Even Ingrid Bergman, who was pregnant at the time it was filmed, had little to say about the film in her autobiography, My Story, except to note “we were in such a hurry to get through that movie before it showed.”  At the time of Europe ‘51’s release, however, Bergman was still a figure of considerable controversy for having left her husband and daughter for Rossellini and the public reception of their films was considerably colored by the resulting scandal. It wasn’t until Martin Scorsese’s 1999 documentary on Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy, in which he singled out and praised Europe ’51, that new interest was generated around the film.

Director Roberto Rossellini films Ingrid Bergman in a scene from their film collaboration

Rossellini first came up with the initial concept for Europe ’51 while he was filming The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) and later presented a completed story outline to Bergman as a present at Christmas. “Roberto was talking to me about…what we would do if Saint Francis came back today,” Bergman recalled in The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini by Tag Gallagher. “What would we do? We would do the same thing. He would be laughed at…He said, ‘I am going to make a story about Saint Francis and [Francis is] going to be you. It was just how we would behave in ’51 if a woman gives up a rich husband, a rich life, all her friends, everything, and goes out into the street to help the poor.'”  Like most of Rossellini’s movies, the actual filming of Europe ’51 was often chaotic, unpredictable and full of disruptions. First, it took more than sixteen months for the script to evolve from its early draft penned by Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli (with the help of a Dominican priest) to a screenplay by Jean-Paul Dreyfus aka “Le Chanois” (a Communist writer-director and former member of the French Resistance) to its final form with contributions from Rossellini and countless screenwriters including Donald Ogden Stewart, a former MGM scenarist who was now blacklisted by Hollywood for his political beliefs.

Ingrid Bergman as a woman of privilege who has a spiritual awakening in Europe ’51 (1952), directed by Roberto Rossellini.

Causing further delays was Rossellini’s decision to switch producers, dropping his French investors and a Paris location in favor of Rome and a partnership with Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis who agreed not to meddle in his affairs but also didn’t grant him a percentage of the picture – something Rossellini had enjoyed since 1943.  Casting Europe ’51 was relatively less complicated and memorable supporting roles were filled by Italian director Ettore Giannini as the Communist intellectual (director Luchino Visconti was originally offered the part but turned it down) and Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, as Passerotto, a relentlessly upbeat single mother living in dire poverty with her many children. Masina had made her screen debut in Rossellini’s Paisan (1946) and had just completed her first major role in her husband’s Variety Lights (1950).

Giulietta Masina and Peppino De Filippo in a scene from Variety Lights (1951), directed by Federico Fellini & Alberto Lattuada.

Once filming began on Europe ’51, there were new problems to face. Even though most of the cast and crew were Italian, the film was shot in English. “The work was very complicated,”[cinematographer Aldo] Tonti recalled in Gallagher’s Rossellini biography, “We were surrounded by throngs of journalists and photographers all the time, and Roberto was constantly changing the scenario, shooting all over Rome with the troupe, going from one end of the city to the other. What I remember is that Ingrid, ever so calm and serene, would sit in crannies knitting away, always, always, during the wearisome waiting for something to be shot.”

Ingrid Bergman in a scene from the Roberto Rossellini drama, Europe ’51 (1952).

According to Donald Spoto’s Bergman biography Notorious, Rossellini wanted his actors to invent their dialogue as they went along which proved to be an intimidating proposition, especially for Bergman. “…Good actors need good writers, and she was given none,” Spoto wrote. “To aggravate the situation, Rome was in the grip of a terrific heat wave, so Roberto decided to film at night and sent his cast to bed by day…In addition, she [Bergman] came down with a heavy cold she could not lose for weeks.”

Alexander Knox & Ingrid Bergman star in Roberto Rossellini’s Europe ’51 (1952).

Ingrid’s co-star, Alexander Knox, also found Rossellini’s methods challenging. “Only twice did I have my dialogue the night before a scene was to be shot,” said Knox in Gallagher’s biography. “Both times, the lines were changed when we met on the set in the morning. All the rest of the time I had no dialogue until a few minutes before the camera turned. Once I was lit for a close-up and the camera had started turning before anyone realized that I had not been given any dialogue. I just sat there, smiling fatuously at Roberto and cameraman Aldo Tonti, and smoking a cigarette. Suddenly, Rossellini spoke. ‘Look at Ingrid,’ he said, ‘and tell her you’re not going out tonight.’ I laughed, turned again to Ingrid, and said obediently, ‘I’m not going out tonight.’ The camera was still turning. ‘Basta’ Rossellini said at length. The camera stopped turning, the lights faded, and I leaned back. ‘Well,’ I asked, ‘am I going out tonight or not?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Roberto. ‘But I’ll know in a week or two – and I won’t have to come back into this set.'”.

Ingrid Bergman plays a woman of privilege who becomes an advocate for the downtrodden in Europe ’51 (1952), directed by Roberto Rossellini.

When it first opened in Italy, Europe ’51 was well received by the public and most Italian critics; it even won Rossellini the prestigious International Award at the Venice Film Festival. It was all downhill from there. Released in the U.S. as The Greatest Love, it received less than positive reviews with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, mirroring the opinions of many critics when he called the film a “dismal and dolorous account of the frustrations of a socially distinguished young matron…” The decidedly non-mainstream film generated no business in the U.S. and drifted into obscurity. Its reputation wasn’t helped in later years when Bergman biographer Donald Spoto wrote that Europe ’51 “suffered from abrupt transitions, unclear motivations and an odd mix of religious conviction, social conscience, political outrage and frank sermonizing.”   More recently film scholars have come to view the Rossellini-Bergman films in a different light, realizing that both thematically and artistically, Rossellini’s work was ahead of its time, particularly in the case of Europe ’51. While the film could certainly be viewed as Rossellini’s vision of the current state of the world in all its confusion, Europe ’51 is also an exploration of Ingrid Bergman’s persona.

Ingrid Bergman on the set of Europe ’51.

The critic Jose Luis Guarner said it best when he wrote, “An attempt is made to express a far-reaching moral conflict, which is incarnated in a woman’s face, merely by means of a series of actions, sketched out in a few strokes with a simplification that touches on abstraction. Ultimately, it is this face that gives coherence to an otherwise discontinuous film, in the same way as the image of Falconetti or Anna Karina fills the gaps in [Dreyer’s] La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc [1928] and [Godard’s] Vivre sa vie [1962]….The film is an ascent from the darkness of the beginning towards a dazzling light of the end, when Irene…regain[s] her inner freedom.”

Europe ’51 is currently available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection in the box set, 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman.  *This is a revised and updated version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other websites of interest:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s