August 29th marks both the birth (in 1915) and death (in 1982) of Ingrid Bergman. I happen to be in a very “Ingrid” state of mind because, coincidentally, I’m a guest on Pia Lindstrom’s Sirius XM radio show on Monday, September 3rd, at 10:30pm on channel 80 (repeated on Friday, the 7th, at 3:30pm). Lindstrom is Bergman’s daughter, so it was rather special to talk about Bergman’s films in the interview (taped earlier this month), specifically Saratoga Trunk (which I like) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (which I don’t). The reason I’m on the show is to promote my latest book, Screen Savers II, which features my pan of St. Mary’s (no fault of Ingrid’s). Her performance in Saratoga Trunk is included in my 2002 book 100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember But Probably Don’t.
Within a stretch between 1942 and 1946, Bergman had a run of successes (artistic, popular, and critical) that would make Meryl Streep envious: Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, Spellbound, Notorious, plus the two titles mentioned above. (The only other one I’m not wild about is Spellbound.) Bergman is quite extraordinary in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Gaslight (for which she got, and deserved, an Oscar), and she’s perhaps best of all in Notorious. But, in paying tribute to her today, I’d like to talk about one of her films from her Italian period, after she left Hollywood and her marriage (to Pia’s father) for a professional and personal life with director Roberto Rossellini.
The most famous of their collaborations is Stromboli (1950) because it was during its making that their affair began, resulting in a colossal international scandal. The most admired of their collaborations is Viaggio in Italia (1954), co-starring George Sanders. But the one I want to address is Europa ’51 (1952), the one I like best. The subject matter is unusual: a self-absorbed, wealthy beauty (Bergman) must deal with the shocking death of her neglected, but also troubled and extremely sensitive, 12-year-old son. The boy dies from injuries incurred in a fall down a flight of stairs, a presumed suicide attempt during one of Bergman’s chic dinner parties. Europa ’51 is strongest when it operates purely as a character study, a spiritual odyssey of ever-widening empathy as a devastated Bergman transforms from useless socialite to guilt-ridden do-gooder to some kind of saint. She attains a glowing serenity holier than anything you’ll find in The Bells of St. Mary’s or even Joan of Arc.
Rossellini’s direction is often typically “real” (drab), and the film’s examination of the post-war world can feel self-conscious, heavy-handed, and didactic. But Bergman is always fascinating. Her transition from icy glamour to an aching, soulful heart is beautifully delineated, including her increasing distance from husband Alexander Knox. (They are foreigners living in Rome, with ties to both America and England.) She finds her way out of her grief by helping the unfortunate, offering others the love and caring she can no longer offer to her son, trying to compensate for letting him down. She pays the medical expenses of a poor boy (saving his life), finds a job for a shack-dwelling mother of six, and nurses a dying whore. She cares without caution, systematically detaching herself from her priviliged existence, becoming an embarrassment to her family and friends. The “civilized” world is far more comfortable with her as a rich, frivolous, and apolitical matron than a rule-breaking bleeding heart, which leads to a very pessimistic ending. Having stepped out of her assigned role in society and finding a new purpose, she’ll soon be stopped from doing good merely for good’s sake.
It’s mesmerizing to watch a world-class actress portray a woman’s fearless, reckless break from her established, protected life and embark on a quest to live differently. How dare any society try to stifle the all-encompassing warmth that emanated so luminously from Ingrid Bergman.