“Dear Mr. Rossellini: …if you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who, in Italian, knows only ‘ti amo’, I am ready to come and make a film with you.”
When Ingrid Bergman wrote this letter of introduction to Italian film director Roberto Rossellini in the spring of 1948 she could not have fathomed the striking course of events that would follow it; a mutual admiration cum unexpected whirlwind romance turned into tabloid scandal. The Bergman/Rossellini affair was a sensationalist publicity nightmare; one that effectively terminated the first half of Bergman’s Hollywood career and branded the once enigmatic and luminous Swede a social pariah unfit to care for her child. The public’s outrage was, perhaps, understandable, for Hollywood had taken great pains to present Bergman as the quintessence of virtue. That the heart of the real woman behind this public image could be swayed from marital bliss into sinful passions was therefore a blow to the public’s own conceit as to who and what they believed Ingrid Bergman to be.
Meanwhile, Roberto Rossellini’s reputation as the foremost proponent of Italian neorealism had been cemented with two breakout movies: Rome, Open City and Paisan. Like the rest of the world, Ingrid Bergman had taken notice of Rossellini’s extraordinary command of the camera; the level of ‘reality’ achieved unlike anything yet seen in world cinema. But by 1948, Bergman had rather tired of Hollywood’s cookie-cutter approach to her own career; chronically cast as a symbol of radiant female purity in roles that increasingly did not call upon her to expand the boundaries of that well-crafted public persona. Yet, in retrospect the films Bergman made with Rossellini are very uneven; semi-autobiographical, self-reflexive explorations of a woman in crisis, fraught by circumstance and fate with religious overtones and implications. The oddity of seeing Bergman repeatedly defying her ensconced Hollywood image; now recast as the wanton, enterprising and rather self-absorbed, fickle creature of means, chronically driven into abject despair or reduced to martyrdom is, arguably, not the Ingrid Bergman audiences then – or perhaps even now – wanted to see.
In the scant 7 years it took for her marriage to Rossellini to run its inevitable course, Bergman was to visibly age on the movie screen. Yet, she also grew considerably as an artist. Rossellini’s artistic freedom, encouraging improvisation and frequently throwing out scripted details altogether, ran in the face of Bergman’s Hollywood training; the much smaller crew a crash course for the American star in self-reliance. Rossellini’s work ethic had, in fact, done wonders for Anna Magnani’s fledgling career. Magnani was Rossellini’s lover prior to Bergman. But in Bergman, Rossellini’s improv struck a decidedly sour chord, Bergman’s Hollywood years somehow impeding her ability to fully explore characterization in absence of any concrete outline. Behind the scenes, Rossellini could often be caustic and unforgiving. Perhaps, as time elapsed, he could not help but see how his alliance with Bergman had impacted his public’s perception of his own work. Indeed, in Italy the Rossellini/Bergman affair went almost unnoticed. What the Italians quite simply could not forgive was the then perceived ‘watering down’ of Rossellini’s neorealist style in service to his new star.
There is something to be said for this perception, particularly in reviewing what has since become known as Rossellini’s ‘voyage trilogy’ (Stromboli 1950, Europe ’51 1952 and Journey to Italy 1954). One is immediately struck by the disjunction between Rossellini and Bergman’s stylistic approach to the material; a departure less so thematically than in overall tone, nevertheless impugned by nothing more substantial than Bergman’s presence in each film. There’s just too great a gap between their irreconcilable realms of creativity; Rossellini’s extemporaneous direction, often spur of the moment lack of planning, manifests itself as the fictional character, Karin’s desperate search for truth through moral sacrifice in Stromboli. Yet Karin’s implied immorality throughout the story is plainly at odds with the Ingrid Bergman-Hollywood persona as the good girl. And Rossellini also seems to have forgotten, principally in his quest for verisimilitude in Stromboli that the relative spontaneity and incongruous nature of life’s daily occurrences rarely gels as cohesive – or even coherently – satisfying parables on the movie screen. If, as the old adage professes, ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ than the time-honored purpose of fiction has always remained to make sense of these factual imperfections. Stromboli’s narrative merely presents the protagonist as flawed, yet without motive or direction or even, at times, purpose, other than to escape from the world she currently occupies. But where and with whom? These are questions unsatisfactorily unanswered within the context of the story.
We begin in the internment camp where Karin (Bergman) first meets an Italian guard, Antonio (Mario Vitale), the two exchanging kisses and dialogue through a barbed wire fence. Not long afterward Karin agrees to marry Antonio after her first attempt at freedom – applying for a visa to migrate to Australia – is denied. What Karin quickly discovers is that internment to a man through marriage may be more of a life sentence than the one she has just left behind. The isle of Stromboli is a barren wasteland, sparsely populated and in constant threat of being consumed by its active volcano.
Karin is immediately unhappy here; her rather haughty reproofs of her husband creating strife and friction that Vitale’s simplistic fisherman is unqualified to cope with or quell. After Karin’s failed attempt to seduce the town’s kindly priest (Renzo Cesana) ends with his rather superficial promise to contact a friend in America, she makes another rather obvious play, this time for the lighthouse keeper (Mario Sponzo) – her actions scrutinized by the locals. To save face, Antonio beats his wife. Later, Karin arrives at the tuna hunt to be nearer her husband. But its’ rather communal beginnings devolve into chaos as the fishermen’s nets are drawn up to the surface and the frenzied thrashing of these dying leviathans transform the tranquil waters into a panicked sea foam of death.
Earlier, Karin had been repulsed when Antonio presents her with the gift of a ferret, forcing her to watch as he released it to kill an unsuspecting rabbit. Eventually, Karin’s tolerance of Antonio’s backwardness reaches its critical breaking point; one solidified by a rather violent volcanic eruption that sends Stromboli’s inhabitants fleeing into the sea. After Antonio bolts Karin in the house to prevent further rumors of infidelity, she manages to woo the lighthouse keeper to come to her aid. The pair makes plans in a grotto near the beach. He promises to meet her on the other side of the island where another village exists. That evening, Karin crawls up the side of the volcano, enduring its toxic evaporations. (Aside: one of Rossellini’s crew actually died from inhaling these fumes while surveying this location for the movie.)
Only after Karin has reached the pit of her own despair does she suddenly experience an epiphany that may or may not lead to some greater understanding and personal salvation. Yet here too Rossellini mangles his attempts to cobble together some greater religious fervor or realization from Karin’s hike up the mountainside. Earlier, Karin had confessed to the priest a belief that God has never been on her side. Yet, alone on the volcano her embittered shrieks into the bleak morning sky, clutching her belly and asking for God’s strength to guide her, derive not from any genuine sense of repentance, but a continuation of that same defiant expectation; God must comply and bend to her will.
People in general, but movie fans in particular, are very demanding and unforgiving of their stars. Bergman’s iconography derived from her Hollywood tenure – that of the deified, mythologized noble creature, untainted by passion and inspired to self-sacrifice. Viewed through this rubric, the Bergman emerging in Stromboli does not fit – not even into Rossellini’s artistic mold of re-conceptualized reality. The crudeness that surrounds Karin on the isle of Stromboli is further exaggerated by Bergman’s own physicality; her patrician glamour, even dressed down in rather mannish clothes and kerchief, cannot belie the actress’ natural beauty; this tall Swede towering over the rather portly and decidedly careworn local inhabitants who eventually come to regard Karin with glowering contempt.
It’s also problematic for the movie that most of its cast speaks very little English. Stromboli was, of course, released in dubbed English and Italian versions with Bergman acquitting herself rather nicely of speaking her lines in a foreign language. But Rossellini’s decision to cast real-life Salerno fisherman Mario Vitale as Bergman’s love interest further complicates the success of Stromboli. Undeniably handsome, Vitale would go on to have a very brief career in the movies. But in Stromboli he is quite incapable of holding his own opposite Bergman. His character Antonio’s rather brutish disciplining of Karin (he beats her) after rumors abound she has been unfaithful to him with the local lighthouse keeper (Mario Sponzo), is apt to elicit more chuckles than shock or disgust from the audience.
It goes beyond Antonio’s inability to relate to this woman he has ‘rescued’ through marriage from the internment of a post-war refugee camp. Vitale’s performance is shockingly wooden next to Bergman’s. He’s also rather diminutive in physical size. Hence, Karin and Antonio’s scenes of marital conflict, even of romantic reconciliation, have absolutely zero spark. We cannot imagine, as example, given the repeated condemnations of Antonio made by Karin, flaunting the smug superiority of her more artistic bourgeoise, how she might allow him access into her body – but later reveals her pregnancy in a moment of servile weakness and defeat.
And Bergman’s enterprising harridan (one who would just as easily seduce a man of the cloth to get what she wants) is, in fact, a nightmare for any one man to handle; desperately craving what she cannot possess while systematically denying herself luxuries at her disposal simply because these clash with her misperceptions of the life she firmly believes she deserves. Stromboli is therefore a story of severely mismatched people involved in a highly toxic relationship. This alone is tragic. But the greater tragedy lies in Rossellini’s inability to draw out the inner registers of these inequities as anything more than sketchy and superficial. The standout performance belongs to Renzo Cesana’s priest who attempts to offer Karin some good advice. She plays upon his saintly philanthropy, testing his resolve and his vows, but ultimately begs for him to secure her passage to America. Cesana’s stoicism is empathetic, yet haunted; perhaps almost tempted to take Karin up on her proposition.
Stromboli is, frankly, a mess. In viewing the rough cut of Stromboli, executives at RKO (the studio responsible for its distribution in America) must have broken into an anxious sweat. Certainly, they appear to have been hard-pressed to craft the necessary publicity to sell the film to American audiences; relying on a breathtaking panacea of artwork illustrating passionate close-ups of Bergman and costar Mario Vitale locked in embrace against the backdrop of an erupting volcano. This sort of painful misrepresentation of Rossellini’s existentialist themes further served to undercut and blunt the impact of the movie when it was released. Yet, even if removed from this gloss Stromboli is not a great film; Rossellini’s venture interrupted by Bergman’s behind-the-scenes realization that she was pregnant with her director’s child.
Given the international financial and critical misfire of Stromboli it is a wonder that the couple continued to make movies together, even if they made no apology for their affair and eventual marriage on May 24th, 1950. In retrospect, Europe ’51 (1952) remains the unwitting result of this solidification. Even more of an oddity than Stromboli, Europe ’51 plays like such an obvious exorcism of Rossellini’s own demons, grappling with the loss of his 9 year old son, Romano from acute appendicitis; the director substituting his star – Bergman - for himself to tell a tale of modern-day sainthood sacrificed in an unjust and very cruel world. Bergman is Irene Gerard, a rather superficial and jaded aristocrat whose young son, Michele (Sandro Franchina) commits suicide because he believes he is unloved by his parents. The realization that her callous reproach of Michele, made in haste while preparing for an elegant dinner party, might be the catalyst for his death sends Irene into an emotional tailspin.
Irene’s husband, George (Alexander Knox) is an ineffectual sort, regarding the loss of their child as much more his than hers. Irene is comforted by a good friend, Andrea Casatti (Ettore Giannini); a physician toiling in Italy’s ghetto district. Andrea also spouts mutilated Marxism that sets Irene’s path on a course of philanthropy for Italy’s impoverished and unfortunates. Regrettably, Irene’s acts of kindness are mistakenly perceived by George and Irene’s own mother (Marcella Rovena), first, as Irene carrying on an adulterous affair with Andrea, then later, even more ominously as a slow descent into madness. After it is discovered that Irene has comforted the prostitute, Ines (Teresa Pellati) as she lay dying of tuberculosis, George decides to have his wife institutionalized.
Asked to defend her actions – or at least explain them satisfactorily to these wealthy but jaded intellectuals, Irene regresses into saintly diatribes instead. Unable to grasp her basic need for human kindness, George commits his wife to the asylum. In the final moments we see Irene from her barred window, arms extended in abject Christ-like martyrdom, reaching down to a select group of unfortunates – mostly children – whose lives she has been able to impact in meaningful ways but will now, arguably, never see again.
Europe ’51 is a very odd duck. The first third is pulpy melodrama as Irene and George separately come to terms with the loss of their only child. But the middle act is almost a TV commercial for a socialist’s world view of charity; a sort of ‘Feed the Children’ meets Karl Marx; Andrea and Irene touring the isolated ghettos and dirty factories of an Italy most movies rarely commented upon. The last act slips even further down Rossellini’s rabbit hole into existentialism: a sort of contemporized, if extremely faux Joan of Arc; Bergman’s now completely converted martyr having transgressed against the covenants of marriage by loving the world at the sacrifice of simply being committed to just one man, and thus made to bear the brunt of her inspired goodness with a life sentence behind guarded walls and locked doors.
Arguably, none of Rossellini’s films are geared as pop entertainment. But even as introspective art house intellectualism Europe ’51 is a fundamentally flawed experiment and, at times, prone to inconsequential bouts of pontificating tedium. It doesn’t seem to know which lesson it ought to teach or even if it wants to serve as a template in its social commentary for change. It simply dabbles in creating, then dispelling its own messages – an utterly pointless exercise made moderately fascinating by Bergman’s central performance that repeatedly teeters on the verge of fearful expressiveness. It’s also interesting to note that Rossellini had originally intended to shoot Europe ’51 in France – not Italy; virtually all of the characters given French names that remained intact even after the movie’s locale reverted back to Italy.
The final installment in Rossellini’s ‘voyage’ trilogy is Journey to Italy (1954); a rather perplexedly straight forward melodrama. Bergman is Katherine Joyce; once again, one half of an unhappily married couple – older but seemingly none the wiser and facing the reality that her marriage to Alexander (George Sanders) may have reached its point of critical mass. The couple has come to oversee the liquidation of a lavishly appointed villa once owned by Katherine’s late uncle. Alex’s penchant for flirtation mildly infuriates Katherine, her nattering eventually wearing thin on Alex who writes his wife a rather condescending letter in which he suggests she severely bores him. Before departing to the relative gaiety of Palermo alone, Alex and Katherine make their pilgrimage to the ruins of nearby Pompeii.
Encountering the unearthed archeological remains of a man and a woman clinging to each other in their final moment of eternal embrace, Katherine is brought to tears, declaring that “Life is so short” to which Alex responds, “That’s why one should make the most of it.” Yet, this mismatched pair is incapable of doing just that; their marriage continuing to unravel until Alex’s return from his momentary escapade into Italy’s glittery nightlife. The villa sold, the pointlessness of their lives together thus far clearly delineated, in a moment of fitful reconciliation Katherine declares her love for Alex and he, having come to the brink of asking for a divorce, decides instead to embrace his wife and remain at her side.
In retrospect, Journey to Italy plays like Rossellini’s hapless aping of the conventions of the Hollywood melodrama; the constant battle and/or flux between Rossellini and Bergman’s conflicted cinema aesthetics, decidedly begun with Rossellini’s modest command of his own existentialist views in Stromboli, now almost completely undermined, or perhaps deliberately designed to superficially mimic the Americanized precepts of cinema storytelling. George Sanders urbane sophistication is a most welcomed presence in the film; the actor’s great gift for wry observation a superb foil for Bergman’s haughty and, at times, sexually frigid woman of means.
It’s rather tantalizing to watch Bergman and Sanders verbally spar, each baiting the other with unfulfilled promises and thinly veiled threats of abandonment before both come to some grander understanding that without the other each is nothing unto themselves. The yoke of Rossellini’s ‘deeper’ meanings is more relaxed in Journey to Italy. He isn’t trying to impress – or perhaps, is, but has found a subtler way to convey his ‘lessons of the day’ that seemed so heavy-handedly on display in both Stromboli and Europe ’51. Perhaps because of this, Journey to Italy’s style seems to be absent, or at least, lacking. It doesn’t feel like a Rossellini movie. But it also doesn’t play like an American-made melodrama. It’s a mutt – conceived with mixed blessings reportedly echoed throughout the shoot by co-star George Sanders who, at one point was politely tapped on the shoulder by Rossellini with the promise, “Don’t worry, George. This won’t be the last bad picture you make!”
Criterion Home Video’s release of 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman is a rather comprehensive milestone for the company. Each movie has been resurrected from its purgatory of less than perfect surviving film elements. While the results vary and are, in fact, far from perfect, they are also light years ahead of what each film has looked like since the advent of home video. The most impressive upgrade is undeniably Stromboli. This film has always looked as though it were fed through a meat grinder. Criterion gives us both the English dub and original Italian version, Stromboli – Terra Di Dio. The English is advertised as a ‘new hi-def digital restoration’ while the Italian is being marketed as derived from a ‘new 2K digital restoration’. Actually, both versions look fairly solid and remarkably alike. Contrast is greatly improved. The elements used in both restorations still suffer from a strained thickness with film grain that, at times is rather excessive and somewhat distracting, with the added deterrent of fairly obvious age-related artifacts scattered throughout. As I said, this transfer won’t win any awards, but it is, by far, an improvement over previous home video incarnations. The audio on both the English and Italian versions suffers from a muffled characteristic.
Europe ’51 (Europa ’51) offers a very crisp B&W image with good solid contrast. Age-related artifacts are present throughout and grain can look just a tad thick and unattractive at times. Again, I suspect we are at the mercy of less than perfect existing film elements. Herein, Criterion advertises its English version as deriving from a 2K transfer while the Italian version is billed as a ‘new hi-def digital restoration’. My quibbling here is minor. Some age-related scratches intrude during the scene where Andrea and Irene go for a ride at night to rid her mind of despair. There’s also a horizontal tear and scratch in the scene where Irene helps Ines die with dignity. Finally, there is Journey to Italy – given the Criterion 4K treatment and looking tighter, cleaner and overall the most pleasing in this trilogy. We still have a few minor instances of dirt and scratches, but otherwise this transfer is marvelous and will surely not disappoint. The monaural audio on both Europe ’51 and Journey to Italy sounds very good too.
Criterion has really padded out the extras, offering immeasurable insight not only into the making of these three films, but also into Bergman and Rossellini’s film careers – both together and apart. Filmed comments in the late 1960’s made by Rossellini are included herein as ‘introductions’ to each film. We get the 1998 documentary, ‘Under the Volcano’ that reunites surviving cast and crew on the isle of Stromboli some fifty years after the film was made. There are also documentaries on Ingrid Bergman’s movie career hosted by Pia Lindstrom, another on Roberto Rossellini, two featurettes in which Ingrid and Isabella Rossellini talk with glowing affection about their parents, several visual essays – the best being Tag Gallagher’s ‘Living and Departed’, a new interview with Martin Scorsese, Rossellini: Through His Own Eyes, a 1992 documentary, interviews with G. Fiorella Mariani - Rossellini’s niece, My Dad is 100 Years Old, a 2005 documentary featuring Isabella Rossellini, and a 1952 short movie directed by Rossellini entitled ‘The Chicken’ also starring Bergman.
The only film to receive an audio commentary is Journey to Italy; historian Laura Mulvey herein offering up the skinny and the goods on the back story. Finally, Criterion pads out the extras with a handsomely edited booklet, featuring astute critiques by Richard Brody, Dina Iordanova, Elena Dagrada, Fred Camper and Paul Thomas, as well as reprints of article interviews given by Rossellini. Bottom line: although the movies are uneven in their artistic merit and, at times, rather frustratingly below par for either Rossellini or Bergman, Criterion’s new box set gave me renewed appreciation for each that I might otherwise not have indulged. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Stromboli - 2.5
Europe ’51 – 3
Journey to Italy – 3.5
Stromboli – 2.5
Europe ‘ 51 – 3.5
Journey to Italy – 4