Graham Greene could be a very political writer (nowhere more than in The Quiet American, which was his next major work after The End of the Affair), but Christianity has no political dimension here. Catholicism in The End of the Affair is exotic, it’s more a matter of individual style, and it’s fixated on sex – and strictures around sex – in ways that can seem rather English.… On the contrary, as Tag Gallagher remarks, Rossellini’s characters tend to pursue a social application for their illuminations: “however eccentric, [they] always implement their private revelations into the public sphere of history.”
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This essay puts side by side two attempts to portray a modern saint in fiction: Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair and Roberto Rossellini’s film Europe ’51. They are contemporary with each other: Greene’s novel was begun at the end of 19481 and came out in 1951; Rossellini began work on Europe in 1949, shot it in 1951,2 and premiered it in ’52. Both works are emblematic for those early postwar years described by Jacques Rancière, in his marvelous essay on Rossellini’s film,3 as “the years of great humanist narratives and questions about the human condition and the destiny of the world.” It was also a time when Catholicism was fashionable in Western culture.
“Religion was a source of truth for Rossellini at the time, perhaps the sole source of truth,” writes Tag Gallagher in his indispensable critical biography of the Italian filmmaker.4 Rossellini’s 1950 film Stromboli (his first collaboration with Ingrid Bergman) had been recognized by young French critic Eric Rohmer as a “great Catholic film”; years later, Rohmer would add that Stromboli was also his personal road to Damascus, turning him away from existentialism.5 And 1950 had also been the year of Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis. He would describe Europe ’51 to Bergman as another St. Francis story: “I am going to make a story about Saint Francis and [this time] she’s going to be you.”6
Rossellini also described his heroine as “a spiritual sister to Simone Weil.”7 Reviewing in 1951 (the year of The End of the Affair) an English translation of Weil’s Waiting on God (her first book to be published in English), Graham Greene would describe her as “a young Jewish teacher of philosophy who died in exile from her native France in 1943 at the age of thirty-four. Since that time knowledge of her has spread by word of mouth, like the knowledge of some underground leader in wartime […] a woman who wished ardently to share the labours of the poor, working with broken health in the Renault works, and who in safe England confined herself to the rations of those she had left in France.”8 In Cristina Mazzoni’s summary of her life (from Mazzoni’s Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism, and Gender in European Culture), Weil was a “philosopher and religious thinker, farm and factory worker, mystic, political theorist and social activist, [who] became in the course of her life increasingly attached to the Catholic faith (she was born in a nonpracticing Jewish family), although she always refused to receive the sacraments. […] Hospitalized in England after a life of privations (most of which she imposed on herself), Simone Weil refused to eat and died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis and malnutrition, [the coroner’s report accusing her] of intentionally starving herself to death.”9 Like Weil, Rossellini’s heroine (Ingrid Bergman) wants at some point to share the lot of the industrial proletariat, the director condensing in a day the experience of Weil’s factory year. And this is only the most obvious of Rossellini’s borrowings: as Martin Scorsese has put it, Rossellini used “the short and intense life of Simone Weil as a kind of model” for “exploring the question of modern sainthood.”10
Although he had been a prolific novelist for more than twenty years, Graham Greene had then only recently become fashionable with his own explorations of related questions – of what Mario Vargas Llosa has called (in an afterword to a Spanish-language edition of The End of the Affair) “the drama of being Catholic in the modern world.”11 (It is no coincidence that Scorsese tried for years to get off the ground a film adaptation of Greene’s 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter – the first of Greene’s huge “Catholic” best-sellers.)12 According to Greene’s biographer, the British writer met with Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman;13 what they talked about is not recorded, but Bergman biographer David Smit writes that Greene “thought she would be good in the film version of his novel The End of the Affair,” as the adulteress who possibly becomes a saint.14 That was not to happen: it is Deborah Kerr who plays Sarah Miles in the tamed Hollywood version of The End of the Affair, directed by Edward Dmytryk and released in 1955. In the mid-50s, Greene and the Rossellinis were involved with two different screen portrayals of Joan of Arc: the Rossellini-Bergman film version of the oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake, by Paul Claudel and Arthur Honegger was released in 1954 (the year in which the couple also shot Fear, their last film together); and a Hollywood adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan appeared in 1957, directed by Otto Preminger from a screenplay by Graham Greene.
Greene’s The End of the Affair is a story of middle-class adultery that turns into a story of religious self-mortification. The narrator is a middle-aged London novelist, Maurice Bendrix, telling us of a love affair of his (with the wife of a high-ranking civil servant) and its aftermath. It is a fast-paced, time-shifting narrative, much celebrated for its always “smooth slipping of narrative gears from a moment in the novel’s ‘present’ to one in the ‘past.’”15 The embittered Bendrix is writing in 1949. He chooses to open his tale with an event from 1946 – his hiring of a detective to spy on his ex-lover, Sarah Miles, two years after Sarah had abruptly put an end to their relationship. The affair itself unfolds between 1939 and 1944. His fluid time-shifting allows the narrator to withhold for a long time the information that Sarah is dead as he’s writing about her, and also the reason why she had left him. The narrative pivots on his stealing her diary (with the help of that private detective), in which she had documented the intrusion of a terrible outside force on her hitherto guilt-free love life. That force is religion.
Reading Sarah’s diary, Bendrix finds out that despite being an atheist like him, she had given him up in order to keep her side of a bargain with God. The bargain had been struck one night during a German bombardment, when a heavy door had fallen over Bendrix. Struck with superstitious terror at the sight of his apparently dead body under that door, Sarah had vowed to give him up if only he came back to life. Bendrix had got up from under the door. Instead of dismissing her vow as hysteria and forgetting it, Sarah had kept it. The rest of her diary records her convulsions of pain after this act of erotic self-mutilation. She tries other lovers, in order to defy that terrible force to which she had sacrificed Bendrix without even believing in its existence; but the injunction against seeing Bendrix only starts looking more serious when defied in this way, and her acts of defiance give her no pleasure. Wanting to be talked out of her bargain, to be convinced by arguments that her promise to a nonexistent deity didn’t count, that it was just hysterical masochism, she starts seeing a rationalist preacher; but such resistance only gives more reality to what is being resisted. It is not so long before she buys a crucifix.
It is a furtive act, accompanied by a sense of shame. As Mary McCarthy wrote in the 1950s, religion in Graham Greene has a “monotonously bootleg character”;16 it’s a bit like smuggled pornography. Putting it more sympathetically, Flannery O’Connor commented that he is trying “to make religion respectable to the modern unbeliever by making it seedy.”17 In any case, the basic lesson of Graham Greene’s novels is, in Slavoj Žižek’s words, that “religious belief, far from being the pacifying consolation, is the most traumatic thing to accept.”18 The End of the Affair is permeated by a sense of religion as some terrible force – tearing into you, tearing a loved one away from you, trapping you, ambushing you, playing games with you.
By giving up her lover, writes Michael Gorra, “it is as though Sarah has punched a hole through her heart, a hole that is both defined and then filled by God.”19 This chimes in with Simone Weil’s insistence that “grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it,”20 and also with the novel’s epigraph, which comes from French Catholic writer Léon Bloy: “Man [sic] has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.” What made Greene’s novel scandalous in 1951 was its suggestion of continuity between one kind of love (erotic, adulterous) and the other (the sacred), the sense that Sarah, in Gorra’s words, is led to “belief by sex itself.”21 The sex writing is very direct for 1951, without being graphic, and religion itself is very corporeal – Sarah is repelled by the gross physicality of Catholic imagery, but at the same time she has to admit that she couldn’t love a vapour. Stealing a scrap of paper on which Sarah had written an impassioned message to God, Bendrix first thinks that she’s addressing a new lover; Greene’s discourse on love and faith is built on this ambiguity, on this potentially farcical situation of mistaken identity. Erotic passion and suffering also decenter Bendrix, unsettling his routines, taking him out of himself, and preparing the ground for his own involvement with God. This involvement is highly reluctant – it initially takes the form of an obsession to have Sarah cremated and not buried. But, like Sarah before him, he is fighting a losing battle: the more resentful he is of religion for taking his lover away from him (“I wanted to be able to say, Resurrect that body if you can”), the more real he makes it. One of the novel’s themes is that love can grow out of hatred, just like faith can grow out of sexual passion. By the end of the novel, Bendrix’s atheistic ranting has come to sound like inverted preaching. It is hard not to feel that in order to have the atheist Bendrix trapped in a corner, Greene is abusing his novelistic string-pulling powers: it is eventually revealed that, before dying, Sarah had been contemplating conversion to Catholicism; it is also revealed that she had actually been baptized into that faith as a child, without ever being told about it; and then there is the suggestion that she may be working miracles from beyond the grave (a disfiguring birthmark vanishes from someone’s cheek, etc.), touching with grace the lives of those who had known her. It’s too easy for the novelist to conjure up all this “evidence” against his embattled atheistic protagonist whose protests that it’s all coincidence can only grow feebler and feebler; Greene himself was aware that he had cheated in the last part of the novel. Still, Sarah’s feverish erotic-religious melodrama, complete with dying from walking in the rain, has proved enduringly seductive to readers, heightened as it by the backdrop of English wartime and postwar dreariness (a world of rations and rubble and seemingly incessant rain turning to sleet and snow), and eloquently narrated by the very self-aware Bendrix, who is almost as quick to diagnose his own many unkindnesses as he is to commit them.
What Sarah does has a subtext of which it’s difficult to know to what extent Greene himself was aware: it is her rebellion as a woman who was brought up to run a house, to be the wife of a reasonably important man, and so on. Religion allows her, as Gorra puts it, to “make her own law,” to forge a moral identity of her own, escaping both her conventional social function (as wife of a civil servant) and the conventional way of transgressing it (adultery). It is a reaction – pathological, if you will – against the constricted social space allotted to her as a woman, a space denying her the fullfillment of pursuing a vocation. It is an exit into something else. This angle is not acknowledged explicitly, but a later play of Greene’s, The Complaisant Lover (1959), shows him aware of it. There he has the husband tell the lover: “You and I both have our work. She has no work except the family round. Children, servants, meals – it’s not a real vocation.”22
Another striking thing about Sarah’s grappling with faith is how self-absorbed it is: it never develops a more social dimension – Sarah never contemplates the possibility of trying to commit somehow to a wider community, of training her compassion on other forlorn people besides her husband and the rationalist preacher with the birthmark on his cheek. She chastises herself for morbid self-preoccupation (she writes: “I wish I knew a prayer that wasn’t just me, me, me. Help me. Let me be happier. Let me die soon.”), but in her diary she has few thoughts about other things. Part of the thrill of her illicit love affair with Bendrix had had to do with the social irresponsibility of welcoming Nazi bombardments, because they created opportunities for amorous meetings. But after religion intrudes, society continues to count little – both in Sarah’s diary and in the obsessive novel incorporating it. Graham Greene could be a very political writer (nowhere more than in The Quiet American, which was his next major work after The End of the Affair), but Christianity has no political dimension here. Catholicism in The End of the Affair is exotic, it’s more a matter of individual style, and it’s fixated on sex – and strictures around sex – in ways that can seem rather English.
On the contrary, as Tag Gallagher remarks, Rossellini’s characters tend to pursue a social application for their illuminations: “however eccentric, [they] always implement their private revelations into the public sphere of history.”23 From the outset, Europe ’51 plunges the viewer into a world of transportation strikes and elderly couples discussing the importance of having a social conscience. Initially, Ingrid Bergman’s character, Irene Girard, seems to lack one: a rich American in postwar Italy, wife to the Rome representative of one of America’s largest international firms (Alexander Knox), she starts out frivolous, contentedly vapid, and neglectful of her ten-year old son, Michel (Sandro Franchina). She is uncomfortable when conversation over the dinner table turns to politics – as it is bound to do when her husband’s cousin, the communist journalist Andrea (Ettore Giannini), is among the guests.
However, what puts an end to the dinner party is the neglected Michel’s fall – perhaps not accidental – down a flight of stairs. He dies in hospital soon after being injected with a sedative. Cause of death: an undiscovered blood clot. Andrea, who is always at Irene’s side, blames “this society which permits so many horrible things to happen,” and describes the depressed Mizchel as “a boy whose first impressions of this world [were] fear, bombardments, and death.” But Andrea’s talk (which sounds slightly too self-satisfied and glibly ready-made) can’t stop Irene from feeling horribly responsible (as we know that Rossellini himself had felt when he had lost a nine-year old son to appendicitis). Nevertheless, Andrea is of use to her: Irene tries to survive her grief by “going to the people” and throwing herself into charity work, and he acts as her guide.
Irene’s unusual voyage begins with the bus she takes to the slums – to “the other side” – with her discovery of the poor: the twelve-in-a-room housing at the outskirts of Rome, the kids passing on their roller skates through an urban wasteland as a body is pulled out of the nearby river. The poor in this film are a somewhat stagy lot – the young man who bursts into spontaneous song, the consumptive prostitute next door, the cheerful mother of six (Giulietta Masina) who befriends Irene – but the episode is still very great. There’s a celebrated shot of Bergman with the wind in her hair, looking lost, her height accentuating, as Jacques Rancière has put it, “the elegant cut of her coat and the distinction of her gait”; as in Stromboli, Rossellini throws her in a quintessentially neorealist environment and mines the resulting contrast, getting maximum mileage out of the fact that it is Bergman there – Bergman with her foreignness, with her glamorous and also scandalous associations – among “the new but already dilapidated buildings where [Rome’s] poor now live,” “the vacant lots along the riverside where wandering children play.”24
At that stage, Irene is a mere tourist of suffering. Then comes the shock of her day at the factory, filling in for the cheerful mother of six whom she befriended (it’s Andrea who found the factory job for her), sharing the conditions of the workers, however temporarily. Instead of precipitating Irene’s passage from individualized charity to political activism, as Andrea clearly wishes, the experience of the factory leads to what Rancière calls her decisive “movement off to the side, the first deviation.” Once jolted into a consciousness of social misery, she had been invited by Andrea to look behind things, but the break for Irene, as Rancière puts it, “comes from looking to the side instead.” What she discovers is that, as she puts it to Andrea, “work is a prison sentence.” Andrea protests that what she has seen is only work under capitalism; in a communist society it would be different. But the Stalinist cult of work, like any other glorification of physical labor, has suddenly become monstruous to her. At least this is what Irene and Andrea argue about in the Italian-language version of the film. In the English-language version (which allows us to hear Ingrid Bergman’s own voice), Irene is made to distance herself more firmly from Andrea’s communism: she rejects class hatred, and, although she admits to Andrea that he has opened her eyes, she stresses that he has done so despite his ideas. In the Italian version, the conversation is not about class hatred: Irene speaks against turning labor into a god, but she doesn’t deny that the society wished for by Andrea could be more just and less unhappy. Elsewhere in the English-language version of the film, references to communism have been made more indirect, in order to make the film more palatable to American audiences in the very anticommunist climate of the early 1950s.
Rossellini made this existential melodrama (quickly and cheaply, as was his habit) at a time when he felt increasingly bullied into choosing one of the “-isms” on the market: Gallagher quotes him raging against the pressure to “give our adhesion to one of the three or four dogmas being marketed. If you don’t use the right words, you’re dead.”25 (A similar sense of Cold War claustrophobia informs an outburst against “-isms and -ocracies” by one of the characters in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.) The Italian neorealism that Rossellini was credited with inventing had been, in Gallagher’s words, “a commitment to construct a new culture – a new reality. Transcending any party or faith, inspired by both Christ and Gramsci, its priorities were fraternity and open-mindedness. […] In this sense, although neo-realist priorities continued to define many moviemakers in many different ways, neo-realism died [once the Cold War began] in 1948. […] For many on the [Italian] left, neo-realism became identified with a political agenda. Eventually the Left would claim proprietorship. [And the] Left increasingly found Rossellini ‘involuted’ and irrelevant, intimate rather than public.”26 The course that Irene’s voyage takes in Europe ’51 was seen as a clear evasion of social issues.
Irene eventually stops returning home (where her husband and mother fret about her consorting with a communist: “Do you know they’ve arrested all the communists in the U.S.?,” her mother asks in the Italian-language version) and moves in with a prostitute, Ines (Teresa Pellati), who is dying of consumption. She doesn’t leave Ines’s bedside for ten days. When she eventually knocks on her neighbors’ door, to inform them of Ines’s death, she walks into another melodrama – the neighbor’s son has robbed a bank and killed somebody, and now he is waving a gun under his parents’ noses. Calmly, with an authority that’s new to her, Irene tells him to turn himself in. The narration rushes through these episodes without much preparation or development: the character of Ines is used as nothing more than the old melodramatic standby she is, and, in rather clumsy fashion, we hear of the bank robbery (through the mouth of a newspaper boy crying out in the street) right before it becomes relevant to our story. This is a film that combines specificity and abstraction in odd ways (the voice-dubbing, of course, plays an important role in abstracting everything).
In order to keep the scandal out of the newspapers, Irene’s family commits her to a psychiatric clinic. There she is tested and interrogated by doctors, priests, and judges. Among other things, she is asked if she is a communist or if she intends to join a religious order. (The part about being a communist is euphemized in the English-language version, where she is just asked if she is a member of any political party.) If they could park her in one of the extant ready-made boxes – even the boxes for radicals, for dangerous people, for those actively threatening the status quo – she would become less disturbing to them; she would be contained, made sense of. But Irene’s religious and political allegiances remain crucially vague. (This is the opposite of what happens in The End of the Affair, where faith is very much about joining a particular church – there’s even a suggestion that the Catholic God had been after Sarah ever since she had been baptized as a very small child.) Irene just talks about aspiring to bind herself to all other human beings, to share their joys and sorrows, to be there for anyone who might need her. (And when a fellow inmate from the clinic tries to commit suicide, Irene is there to comfort her.) Like Rossellini himself at the time, Irene is in flight from prefabricated explanations. Tag Gallagher tells that Rossellini shaped the story and the screenplay with input from a lot of directions: his influences included a “feminist protest novel” by Alba de Céspedes, Quaderno proibito (1952), “written as the diary of a woman afraid to have a diary,” while the many writers who had a hand in Europe ’51, or at least consulted on it at one stage or another, included Dominican priest Felix Morlion and communists Jean-Paul Le Chanois, Antonello Trombadori, and Massimo Mida.27 It is as if Rossellini wanted to test all the possible frames that could be put around Irene’s actions before attempting to wriggle free of them all. It is what Jacques Rancière means by finding the lateral path and taking it: “see something on the side, continue to walk wherever one’s own steps – and not those of others – lead.” Irene becomes a deviant in relation to all systems. And Rossellini, by making full use of the contradictory implications of the Ingrid Bergman persona28 – the natural, the radiantly spiritual, the home-wreckingly scandalous, and the mentally vulnerable (for Europe ’51 was not her first time on-screen that people had tried to put her in a mental institution) – carries off his desperately personal portrayal of contemporary sainthood as air-giving aberration.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film and trailers.
- Richard Greene, Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene, Little, Brown, 2020, 197. [↩]
- Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, Da Capo Press, 1998, revised 2006 edition distributed as PDF by the author, 467-471. [↩]
- Jacques Rancière, “A Child Kills Himself,” in Short Voyages to the Land of the People, translated from French by James B. Swenson, Stanford University Press, 2003. The essay can be read online at https://www.diagonalthoughts.com/?p=1554, last accessed on July 10, 2022. [↩]
- Gallagher, Adventures, 414. [↩]
- Gallagher, Adventures, 448. [↩]
- Gallagher, Adventures, 448. [↩]
- Amédée Ayfre, Conversion aux images?, Éditions du Cerf, 1964, 66. [↩]
- Graham Greene, “Simone Weil,” in Collected Essays, Penguin Books, 1970, 279-282. [↩]
- Cristina Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism, and Gender in European Culture, Cornell University Press, 1996, 205-206. [↩]
- Martin Scorsese, “Europa ’51,” in Maria Lea Bandy & Antonio Monda (eds.), The Hidden God: Film and Faith, The Museum of Modern Art, 2003, 75-77. [↩]
- Mario Vargas Llosa, “Milagros en el siglo XX. El fin de la aventura de Graham Greene,” in Graham Greene, El final del affaire, translated into Spanish by Eduardo Jordá, Titivillus, 2020, ePub, 514. [↩]
- Adam Dawtrey, Michael Fleming, “Heart Beats for Greene,” Variety, January 22, 2004, https://variety.com/2004/scene/markets-festivals/heart-beats-for-greene-1117898948/, last accessed on July 10, 2022. [↩]
- Richard Greene, Russian Roulette, 233. [↩]
- David Smit, Ingrid Bergman: The Life, Career and Public Image, McFarland & Company, 2012, 89. [↩]
- Michael Gorra, “On The End of the Affair,” Southwest Review, Vol. 89, No. 1 (2004), 113. [↩]
- Mary McCarthy, “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing,” Partisan Review, XXIV, 1957, 274. [↩]
- Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979, 201. [↩]
- Slavoj Žižek, On Belief, Routledge, 2001, 85-86. [↩]
- Gorra, “On The End of the Affair,” 122. [↩]
- Quoted by Gallagher in Adventures, 414. [↩]
- Gorra, 110. [↩]
- The Collected Plays of Graham Greene, Penguin Books, 1985, 204. [↩]
- Gallagher, Adventures, 349-350. [↩]
- Rancière, “A Child Kills Himself.” [↩]
- Gallagher, Adventures, 466. [↩]
- Gallagher, Adventures, 333-337. [↩]
- Gallagher, 466-468. [↩]
- The subject of a beautiful analysis by Robin Wood in his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Columbia University Press, 1989, 310-321. [↩]