In 1976, I was crossing Astor Place in Manhattan with an Italian documentary filmmaker, Luciano Martinengo. We were translating the poems of the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had been murdered the year before. Luciano was describing a movie that I would not see until a decade later.
Spoiler alert! (I have never before used that journalistic term, but there's always a first time.) In Roberto Rossellini's 1952 film, Europa '51, a rich woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini's wife at the time, is so absorbed in her social life that she neglects her eleven-year-old son, who kills himself. Trying to understand why, she seeks help from the Church and then the Communist Party. When she begins giving her money away, her family commits her to a mental institution.
Luciano's description of the film had a big effect on me. That summer of 1976, I went to Italy to continue the Pasolini translations, and wrote a long poem, whose title refers to the Rossellini: "Italy '76." Our Pasolini book was published by Random House and reissued by Farrar Straus & Giroux, and remains in print.
Europa '51 is very rare, not available on DVD, but this Friday, August 6, at 6 p.m. EDT, Turner Classic Movies will run it. I urge you to see it.
I plan to write more here about the films of Rossellini, especially some of his history films--The Age of the Medici, The Rise of Louis XIV, Blaise Pascal, Descartes--recently released on Criterion. His Flowers of Saint Francis treats of some of the themes in Europa '51.
In 1970, again near Astor Place, the novelist Steve Katz said human history breaks down into two words, greed and need.
Europa '51 had a big effect on Pasolini. His 1968 film Teorema tracks a wealthy family as it disintegrates. In the end, the father gives his factory to the workers. Pasolini revered Rossellini, and the visual treatment of the mother in Teorema, played by Silvana Mangano, has echoes of that of Bergman in Europa '51.
Pasolini wrote a novel at the same, also titled Teorema, and this July the Lincoln Center Festival presented a staged version of the novel and film by the Dutch company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, written and directed by Ivo van Hove. It was great to see Pasolini's ideas living in a new form. And it was great to see it at Governors Island, which is now being used as an arts venue.
So, Astor Place, Europa '51, Rossellini, Ingrid: in the 1980s I wrote a screenplay, "Astro Place," about six characters in search of utopia near Astor Place between the fraught years of Orwell's 1984 and Kubrick's 2001. In 2006, Bob Holman at the Bowery Poetry Club, a few blocks south of Astor Place, suggested I make it a poem, to be part of an anthology where poets write about places in New York. Each would use the "I Am" form: thus was born one frenzied April night that year, "I Am Astro Place," which can be found in Jacket magazine (http://jacketmagazine.com/33/macafee.shtml) and in my collected poems, One Class. At one point one of the six characters writes and directs a musical version of Europa '51, and we see a production number from it: "We're Giving Our Money Away."
Why should all this matter? Because half of the people in the world live on two dollars a day or less.
Don't miss Europa '51. Friday, August 6, at 6 p.m. EDT, Turner Classic Movies. Bravo TCM!