In “Europe ’51” Irene (Ingrid Bergman) is a society woman who searches for life’s meaning after the accidental death of her son. She’s a worldly but superficial woman, but her son’s death will push her to seek others, and help those in need in a bid to achieve a kind of holy state.
The first scene of the film is told in perfect cadence and Stendhalian efficiency : Irene, lady of the house, is holding a dinner party. The guests arrive, they’re plied with martinis and vermouth. She gets frustrated by her son’s quirkiness, his, what we would nowadays call “cries for attention.” The young man makes an appearance, then beseeches his mother from bed. He is needy, the little one. Earlier, he’s made to greet the dinner guests and thank them for the locomotive he receives as gift. Then, he gets promptly sent away. Later that evening, he’s found lying unconscious at the bottom of the staircase.
Disappointed by a leftist intellectual (Ettore Giannini) husband, after her son’s death Irene leaves the nest frequently and becomes close with a poor prostitute (Giuletta Massina) living in the slums. Good works and social rapprochement ensue as Irene discovers how the other half lives. Disaster, of a different kind, strikes, again. Irene gets locked up in an insane asylum by her husband after being accused of complicity in a crime.
“Europa ’51” is Rossellini’s second film with Ingrid Bergman. A parable on mental illness, an elevated state of consciousness one can aspire to and early fifties Western society, “Europa 51” is also the personal journey that a woman in a state of existential chaos takes. The personal tragedy she suffers leads to catharsis, a social awakening. Society’s response, however, will be to commit her.
Of note, Rossellini’s own son died a few years before “Europa 51” was made, from appendicitis.
As of this writing “Europa 51” is available on Youtube.