Long fascinated by Francis of Assisi, Roberto Rossellini decided to create a film that placed a person of the saint's character in post-war Italy and showed what the consequences would be. The film's sets were designed by Virgilio Marchi, a veteran Futurist architect.
Industrialist George Girard (Alexander Knox) and his wife Irene (Ingrid Bergman) are a wealthy couple living in post-war Rome with their son Michele (Sandro Franchina), and they host so many parties that their son feels neglected. During a dinner party, Michele constantly tries to get his mother's attention, but Irene is more interested in being a good hostess to her guests than an attentive mother, and as a result Michele attempts suicide by falling several stories down a stairwell, fracturing his hip.
At the hospital, Irene promises never to leave Michele and to be more attentive, but he dies soon after from a blood clot. Irene is bedridden for 10 days for depression, and when she finally comes out of it, she enlists the help of her cousin Andrea Casatti (Ettore Giannini) to help her overcome her grief. Andrea is a publisher and a Communist, and determines she needs to see "the other Rome," and takes her to the poorer parts of the city.
Irene leaps to help when Andrea mentions a poor family whose son needs expensive medicine, and she immediately decides to help, donating her money to help the child. Irene is struck by the dreadful living conditions in the slums. She meets a penniless woman named Passerotto (Giulietta Masina) in a shack by a river and helps her care for a large brood of ragged kids. Irene secures a factory job for Passerotto, and even fills in for her for the first day. She's horrified by the factory's working conditions, which she sees as slavery. Irene then cares for a prostitute who is dying of tuberculosis.
A priest (Alfred Browne) who befriends her, likewise, eventually backs away from her when his appeals to her to submit to God are not reciprocated, and Irene has a long conversation with him about the "true mercies" of God while the poor suffer needlessly and no one does anything about it.
As a result of helping these people, she spends less and less time at home. George and Irene's mother are concerned about her unexplained absences from the house, and George accuses her of having an affair with Andrea, which causes her to leave him. She is eventually picked up by the police after helping a boy who had committed a theft evade arrest (she had told him to turn himself in). Irene is so shocked by George's overreaction that she doesn't try to argue with him, but her husband and the authorities decide to put her in a mental institution, and he abandons her.
She is finally brought before the review board on whether she will stay there permanently. It is decided that her philosophy of helping people is dangerous for the fragile post-war society, and therefore she becomes locked up there permanently. The people she has helped, along with many she hasn't, stand outside her cell window, praying to her as their new "patron saint." The last image is of Irene's face looking down at them through the bars with a hint of a smile.Ingrid Bergman as Irene Girard (dubbed in Italian by Lydia Simoneschi)
Alexander Knox as George Girard
Ettore Giannini as Andrea Casatti
Giulietta Masina as Passerotto
Marcella Rovena as Mrs. Puglisi
Tina Perna as Cesira
Sandro Franchina as Michele Girard
Maria Zanoli as Mrs. Galli
Teresa Pellati as Ines
William Tubbs as Professor Alessandrini
Alberto Plebani as Mr. Puglisi
Alfonso Di Stefano
Alfred Browne as Hospital Priest
Ingrid Bergman won the 1953 Silver Ribbon award from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists for her performance. In addition, Roberto Rossellini won the International Award and was nominated for the Golden Lion award at the 1952 Venice Film Festival.
The film upon its limited release was censored by the Italian government, and the subsequent released versions of this film since have been either censored or heavily re-edited worldwide, such as:An opening reference to a union labor strike was removed.
Rossellini included dialogue to the effect that the poor family's father is unemployable because he worked for Mussolini's all-Fascist railroad union.
In some versions during a party the parents are hosting, the son simply commits suicide by leaping from a window.
The English-language release skipped over huge sections of dialogue, especially when Irene tries to voice her theory to the priest that one's love should reach beyond one's family or social group.
When the Los Angeles-based film festival Filmex showed it in 1974 as a part of their classic films series they were given (and inadvertently ended up screening) a 16mm print of a film titled The Greatest Love, a clumsily-edited and badly English dubbed version of the film that removed any references to labor strikes and once again abridged key dialogues between Ingrid Bergman's character and the priest.
In 2013 the video company The Criterion Collection finally released it as part of a three-Blu-ray set titled "3 Films By Roberto Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman." Criterion's version of the film was completely restored from surviving elements and is finally intact, and a new English subtitle translation is also included. As part of its extra features it shows some of the many glaring edits and omissions that were done to the film, and how passages were altered to eliminate controversial content.