The first Rossellini-Bergman vehicle: “Stromboli”

The first Roberto Rosselini film with Ingrid Bergman is primal drama, though the film was overshadowed by the huge international scandal of their offscreen romance. It is hard to comprehend that the liaison between an actress and a director, each married to others, could lead to the feverish denunciations in the US Congressional Record and American press that were aimed at Bergman. I wasn’t alive at the time, but have read about it.

I come here to praise the actress and the film, and will get around to doing so, and not wallow in the scandal swirling around it during the late 1940s indefinitely, but something of the context in which the film came into existence is important for understanding a film in which veneer of civilization is stripped down to primal forces (the ones here are fire, water, woman, and God).

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In 1948 Bergman was one of the most famous and honored film actresses in the world (after Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, Notorious, The Bells of St. Mary, and Saint Joan) saw Rossellini’s “Paisan.” Having admired his earlier “The Open City,” she saw what she regarded as “another great movie” in a nearly empty house. In a letter expressing her admiration, she wrote Rossellini that “if you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well…and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.”

Italy had been cut off from American movies during the war, and Rossellini had no interest in Hollywood products. He did not know who Bergman was. When her fame was explained to him, he realized that her name could raise the money for any film project he could imagine. Howard Hughes — wanting to woo Bergman himself – -agreed to finance the film.

Rossellini and Bergman began an affair, and she was soon pregnant. In the film Bergman places Karin, a stateless woman who says she is from Lithuania but whose papers are not sufficient to gain entry to Argentine. To get out of the refugee camp, she agrees to marry Antonio (Mario Vitale), a demobilized soldier who kisses her through barbed wire and tells her that he lives on a beautiful island.

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She badly wants to get out of the refugee camp and looks on Antonio as her only available ticket. What’s love got to do with it? For her, nothing. For him, well, she’s very beautiful, and he does not think much further about their compatibility. Not to mention that they hardly know each other.

Off they go. The island is beautiful—for those who like volcanoes jutting out of the ocean. There is practically no soil on the island and the volcano is very active. Before the war Antonio had his own fishing boat, but now he must work on someone else’s. His rewards are few and do not include a wife fitting into wearing black, covering her hair, taking orders, and doing things they way generations of Sicilian women have.

The few villagers who have not fled to the Italian mainland or to America treat her as an object — an object of desire for the men, an object of scorn for the women as immodest. Constantly watched, rarely spoken to, Karin is desperate to leave. Husband-wife conflicts are shown perfunctorily. The attitudes of the village women and of the village men are also registered economically.

There is also a rain of boulders from the volcano. There is some fascinating footage of the long rowboats fishing, and hitting the jackpot of a run of tuna (half a century ago, the Mediterranean was not fished out, as it now is). And there is the night in which the whole village is crammed onto boats as part of the town is destroyed by a volcanic eruption. There’s much that looks like a documentary. (Rossellini made films about Socrates and the young Louis XIV that seem like documentaries, so showing the life of a fishing village on a volcanic Italian island could be considered a minor feat for him.) Along with Visconti’s “La terra tremenda,” “Stromboli” is where one looks to see what the rugged life of Sicilian fisherman was like.

A paragraph ago, I left Karin desperate to get out. I failed to mention that she’s three-months pregnant. She tries to seduce the priest (Renzo Cesana in a subtle performance) into giving her the money to finance her escape. She flirts with the lighthouse keeper, and with money from him sets off for the other side of the island. The route goes practically to the rim of the crater. As I’ve said, this is a very <b>active</b> volcano. The trek is horrible, even for someone as robust as Bergman. Trying to walk up ash dunes is bad enough, but clouds of ash are even worse. It is vivid! She suffers. She abandons her possessions. She despairs. She chokes. She collapses.

Before she set out on this suicidal escape route, I was amused by her brushing her hair. To make a good impression on the volcano? But it pays off! When the morning sun wakens her, the only possible word to describe her is “radiant.” I must have been watching too many movies with “stars” like Nicole Kidman, Gwynneth Paltrow, Laura Linney, and other mere mortals. Though these contemporary actresses do many admirable things, Ms. Bergman was a force of nature, a worthy opponent for a volcano. Indeed, it is obvious that all Rossellini needed was Bergman and the volcano. Both Bergman and the volcano show many different faces during the film’s last fifteen minutes. The music during the ash storm is overwrought, and some of what Bergman does could be described as “hysterical,” but she also does resignation, determination, and transcendence.

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Karin attains grace through the vehicle of Ingrid Bergman (more convincingly, than Bergman’s Joan of Arc did—this is like Falconetti’s Joan in the flames at the end of Dreyer’s masterpiece). I don’t know what she is going to do with it, or whether she will keep it, or whether it is fleeting, but I have no doubt that what the viewer sees is the attainment of grace. That is more than enough for any movie to do. The fish out of water Bergman-Sicilian fishermen movie is good, but the Bergman and the volcano movie is great. And, eventually, the volcano, too is superfluous. Bergman’s face is, finally, all that is necessary!

I once saw the 81-minute American release with incredibly fatuous narration. It is no wonder that it was a failure. The original Italian version is 108 minutes and is a great and beautiful film though it is certainly not a pleasant film.

 

©2001, Stephen O. Murray

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