“It was spring, it’s Rome, and I’m a housewife from Philadelphia,” says Mary Forbes (Jennifer Jones). In Rome a month to visit her sister and nephew, she’s fallen in love with a handsome Italian, Giovanni Doria (Montgomery Clift). Giovanni proclaims Mary “emancipated”—meaning she can make her own choices. As the film opens in the vast expanse of Stazione Termini, Rome’s central train station, a modernist masterpiece (completed 1950), she seems to have made one: to return to her husband and seven-year-old daughter. Giovanni is distraught: “What am I to you really — some old guidebook that you don’t want any more?” This trite “guidebook” comment evokes the rustic fantasy that is part of how Giovanni and Mary imagine their future together, even as Mary is about to catch a train that will take her away forever.
The originally titled “Stazione Termini” was a longer film by Vittorio De Sica, brutally cut by David O. Selznick. Despite the cuts (or because of them), the shorter version has its own black and white intensity, both psychological and spatial. It takes place entirely inside the station, in one hour of real time. The station’s complex structure reflects and reinforces Mary’s situation. Its soaring atrium hints at freedom and possibilities, while its dark, confining interior, including the subterranean Metro, shot with film noir accents, suggests constrictions and limitations. Giovanni emerges as overly insistent, moody, and even violent. Whatever idyllic notions of life in Italy Mary might have are confronted by a different view of Italian culture presented in the densely populated station: leering men, marching alpine soldiers, sacrificing mothers tending to needy children. A moralistic social and legal system of the early 1950s cultivates shame, if only for women. Whatever Mary and Giovanni do — and it is by no means an insignificant indiscretion — in the end possibilities are closed off, and choice has been an illusion.