Extraordinary Actress, August 6, 2010
A friend sent me a
copy of this 1952 Italian production EUROPA 51 starring Ingrid Bergman because
my friend knew of my deep regard for the extraordinary actress. This was one of
a small number of medium-budget films that featured Bergman during the period
of her Hollywood "exile" (salvation from Hollywood might be more
accurate) due to her affair & subsequent marriage to (EUROPA director
Roberto Rossellini). All the films of this period were black & white
(actually a PLUS in my estimation), usually a little left of center or
Existentialist/whatever. THE VISIT is an example. It's has a bit of the
Twilight Zone about it, Bergman plays an embittered, negative woman--and
manages to be captivating.
It's not that the script or direction or other production values of EUROPA 51 are "better" than THE VISIT, it's Bergman's characterization that is, in a word...remarkable. At first I started making a lot of assumptions of where the film & Bergman's characterization would inevitably lead; but then I could clearly see just how much Ingrid Bergman offered of herself in the role.
The film opens with a less than original plot: wealthy & socially prominent American wife living abroad (Italy) while not exactly ignoring her young son, is less than responsive to his needs...and danger signals he's putting out. The situation is compounded by her husband's coldness & restrictive conventionality. Disaster ensues & Bergman's "mother" arrives on the scene & in her way is even worse than the husband in her ability to help her increasingly unstable daughter. The only person who does seem to connect with Bergman's character is a wealthy Marxist-Leninist (!) He introduces Bergman to people living in a poor & crime infested sector of Rome. It is at this point that Bergman begins to draw away from ideology as she becomes increasingly involved in the serious & life-threatening problems of the residents.
It is also at this juncture that I began to see the depth & intimacy Bergman was bestowing to the role. A rather maudlin & predictable story begins to transform into something intensely true & almost cruelly beautiful...something like Leonard Cohen's exquisite ballad JOAN OF ARC. As she begins to appear as something like an Evita figure, her family & the conventional people around her try to change her into something they can feel comfortable with...and when this fails, they abandon & consign her to a mental hospital. Bergman seems to acquiesce with this fate, becoming even more famous or notorious for her evident saintly qualities.
At the end of the story her family has completely abandoned her, her Marxist friend fades out of the picture after she tells him that his appeals to violence can never lead to anything helpful, and a priest who had befriended her likewise draws away when his appeals to God are not reciprocated. In the final scene, a group of the poor whose life's she's touched with her compassion stand below her barred window, praying to their new Saint. The last image is Bergman's face looking down at them through the bars, her face beautiful, sad, compassionate--and? There is another, indefinable expression.
Is it madness?
Maybe only Ingrid Bergman really knew.
PS. Cohen's JOAN OF ARC ends with this verse:
I saw her wince, I saw her cry
I saw the glory in her eye
Myself, I long for love & light
But must it come so cruel, must it shine so bright?
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
Autumn Sonata - Criterion Collection