The impossible dream

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Video Review
I Live in Fear
Directed by
Akira Kurosawa
Europa ’51
Directed by
Roberto Rossellini

(Warning: narrative details and plot twists explicitly discussed)

FANTASY DOUBLE FEATURE: Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear and Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 both ask the question: how should we deal with the man who holds extreme views on life? Humor him or condemn him? Or—unsettling thought—listen to what he has to say?

KUROSAWA STARTS in media res, with Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune in thick old-age makeup) in the midst of a family dispute: basically, he wants to move his entire brood (including mistresses and illegitimate children) to Brazil and his family—outside relations included—want nothing to do with the plan. It’s a terrifically constructed little film that suggests the intricacies of how family disputes are legally arbitrated in Japan; Kurosawa whips scenes along in a no-nonsense pace (But when did he not do that, in the terse lean ’50s?) moving the camera to underline the crucial nature of a phrase or moment, sometimes rushing in to catch a character’s momentous words.

The domestic black comedy (and much of it is funny if you can look beyond all the earnest faces) is smoke screen for what Kurosawa really wants to say: that we’re all mad, the world is mad and Nakajima is the sane one among us. Presenting a man as crazy, then introducing the idea that maybe he’s after all sane is a difficult sales tactic; Kurosawa in my book gave himself one challenge too many by refusing to explain how Nakajima came upon his conviction, presumably assuming that we all share the same unease about the presence of nuclear weapons in the world. Might have been true in the ’50s—Kurosawa’s film was reportedly inspired by the story of two Japanese fishermen selling fish contaminated by fallout dust from hydrogen bomb testing in Bikini Atoll—but Kurosawa, I’d say, fails to account here for man’s invincible sense of complacency and desire for convenience, a flaw he’ll tackle more persuasively in Ikiru (dying man takes on apathetic bureaucracy) and Yojimbo (ronin takes on gangsters in apathetic town).




What the film does have are some quietly effective performances—Dr. Harada’s (Takashi Shimura) growing conviction that Nakajima isn’t crazy is far more moving than Mifune’s strenuous pleas—and a clever little visual motif: throughout much of the film Kurosawa (a master at depicting weather and climate) sets much of the story in sweltering summer heat. We see sun-drenched exteriors, we see people constantly fanning themselves (not to mention shortened tempers and snippy replies), we see the glint of sweat beads on moist skin, all this suggesting the effect of the biggest hydrogen bomb explosion of all, constantly detonating above our heads. Kurosawa tops the running gag and ends the film with an unforgettable image of Nakajima staring straight into the sun in dismay, the sun staring back in all its imperturbable inevitable glory. No Kurosawa doesn’t convince, alas, but he gets some serious body blows in before going down.

Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 starts out this much right: focused on his heroine Irene (Ingrid Bergman) and why she becomes so obsessed with the poor. The film—simpler, more direct—is also in many ways more deceptively subtle, Rossellini’s loose, almost invisible, style working constantly to nudge our attention toward certain casually planted details. The way, for example, the camera follows Irene as she strides from one room to another, instructing the help then sitting down to dress for a dinner party: she’s star of the household, the dressing table mirrors reflecting her charisma, her child Michele (Sandro Franchina) trailing behind in a feeble attempt to call her attention. Later, after Michele’s accident, Irene sits at his bedside putting her face next to his and the camera moves imperceptibly closer to better catch her words (if you think about it it’s angled in such a way as to suggest a third person sitting at that bedside) and she recalls their time hiding from the bombing raids in World War II. The implication being: Irene wasn’t always like this. In the war, she was a loving caring mother, shielding her child from approaching enemy planes. Prosperity and complacency have wrought grievous change.

How to change her further? Rossellini’s solution is swift and quietly brutal: Irene is in a discussion with her husband George (Alexander Knox); apparently, their child’s accident was no accident. She falls to the couch weeping: “We have to change our lives!” Unseen behind her the maid pops up with an alarmed expression: the husband (camera following) walks to the maid, who whispers in his ear. Without a word to Irene, he leaves the room.

Rossellini constantly focuses his camera on Bergman, his star and muse (a scandalous muse—they were conducting an adulterous affair while making their films). Only the filmmaker recognizes something others who adore their actresses do not: that real beauty is constantly in flux, warping in reaction to the stresses inflicted; that joy and anguish serve to bring out a woman’s beauty best and a woman being transformed to her most extreme form* is perhaps most beautiful of all.

*(A kind of passion not unlike Joan of Arc’s, of which the Dreyer version, come to think of it, could turn this double feature into a triple feature.)

Rossellini works in a low-key manner using the simplest materials; instead of taking up the cause of national liberation or nuclear annihilation, his heroine simply looks about, and sees the surrounding poor—specifically, families crowded into an apartment block and a nearby hovel, scrabbling out a living.

Irene ends up caring for a dying woman, a prostitute named Ines (Teresa Pellati, presumably chosen to be Irene’s opposite number/double in society (there but for the grace of God). She’s in the presence of yet another death only this time she’s a direct witness: Ines stops breathing and the camera pans down to her neck (Why? To look for the pulse that isn’t there?).

She goes next door to inform a neighbor, only the neighbor has her own problems: their son has committed a failed bank robbery and killed someone, is hiding in the apartment pointing a gun at his family. The timing’s so startling it’s almost comical (the only previous foreshadowing a newsboy yelling details of the robbery on the streets) but Rossellini presents the twist with such urgency and matter-of-fact conviction you forget to laugh—Irene in a series of hurtling camera movements is suddenly shoving the boy out the apartment door: “Turn yourself in. I know you’ll do it.” The camera lingers on a long shot of the youth fleeing into the dark.

You want to say to yourself “What the f—?” You want to agree with the police and later the doctors’ verdict: “lei e pazza” she’s crazy. But the camera’s close identification with Irene—often seeing what she sees, feeling what she feels—keeps you in constant conflict with the more objective assessment. She’s crazy but we know why she’s crazy and we aren’t sure we wouldn’t act so crazy ourselves, given the circumstances.

As with Kurosawa’s Nakajima, Irene ends up in an asylum; unlike Nakajima, Irene doesn’t retreat into true insanity; she’s sane and totally aware of what’s being done to her, and why. Asked why she’s like this, Irene may sound evasive—she rejects communism, and when asked if she feels “a power within” wryly replies: “If I thought I had great spiritual power I would be insane and nothing more.” Like Jesus when interrogated you might say they are evasive for survival’s sake, to keep from being accused of subversion or heresy. Or you might say they struggle to describe an overwhelming fact within themselves that they can barely understand.

Europa ends with Irene’s martyrdom but instead of pointing his camera at the sun, Rossellini points it upwards, at Irene’s face. As Irene, Bergman is asked to present the character’s transfiguration; she’s more than equal to the challenge: with her divine cheekbones atop swan-like neck, face softly lit with harsh bars cutting across the screen for contrast, she’s transformed from struggling human being to martyred holy figure. Her struggle is over, not because Irene has achieved some vague state of grace but because she knows everything: she knows why she’s there, she knows why they’re down below adoring her, why they’re down below abhorring her, and she accepts it all. Grace, when you think about it, is the state where you know your true place in the universe, terrible or wonderful—or both—it may be. And there you are.