Thursday, October 3, 2013

When worlds collide sparks fly, volcanoes erupt

Stromboli production still by Gordon Parks

Perhaps you know the story. Ingrid Bergman, post-Casablanca (1942) and at the height of her radiance and bankability, writes a letter offering her services to Roberto Rossellini, director of the neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City (1945), also famous, if in more rarified circles. Bergman describes herself as “a Swedish actress who speaks English very well.” As for Italian, alas, all she knows is “Ti amo.” I love you. If that strikes you as several kinds of proposal, what follows validates your suspicion. Both parties were married and those marriages ended very publicly. Bergman abandoned her family and one of the great Hollywood careers for Rossellini, Italy, and what was then considered failure. Bergman and Rossellini’s marriage didn’t last long, but they managed to make three features and three children—one of whom happens to be Isabella Rossellini. Over the years those features have been reappraised and recognized as remarkable. Criterion has collected each of them and a trove of supplements for its new box set 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman.


Remarkable as all three are, I’m partial to the first. Set at the end of the war, Stromboli (1950) follows Karin (Bergman), a Lithuanian interned at a displaced persons camp in Farfa. She’s romanced by a handsome young Italian named Antonio (Mario Vitale). Their sole common language is an exceedingly broken English. (A word of advice: watch the English version supplied on Criterion's set.) Their tryst on either side of the barbed wire, neither having the slightest idea what they’re getting into, is deeply moving. “I don’t understand you,” she tells him with an affectionate laugh as he babbles away. She doesn’t know the half of it—yet. Her options reduced to nil, Karin accepts Antonio’s proposal of marriage. She’s freed, only to be held captive on a volcanic island and former penal colony whose entire populace, Antonio included, she finds unforgivably backward.


Bergman is magnificent, petulant, totally un-ingratiating, and it’s a great story, extreme yet familiar to many—my grandmother was a war bride and could surely relate to Karin's suddenly finding herself in a strange, difficult, isolated place amidst people with whom she feels no affinity. But what makes Stromboli so unforgettable are its documentary aspects: the cast of locals; their singing, mournful even when celebratory; the mythical manner in which Rossellini captures their tuna fishing rituals; an actual volcanic eruption, with the villagers watching the whole thing from boats just off the shore. The collision of Bergman's inherent glamour and the very real rugged island life surrounding creates an engrossing frisson. 

Europe '51

Revisiting the themes of Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), Europe ’51 (1952) casts Bergman as a society woman who transforms into a modern saint following the tragic death—an apparent suicideof her 12-year-old son. Our heroine gradually strays from her moneyed, sheltered life—a key sequence finds her covering for a friend (Giulietta Masina!) who works in a factory, and the rapid cutting between her uneasy visage and the factory machinery recalls moments in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), while the creepy exterior shots of the factory look forward to similar images of industrial alienation in Red Desert (1964). Her actions eventually draw the attention of authorities who deem her mentally ill and confine her to an asylum, whose stark walls also invoke Joan. The final scene, in which her admirers weep below her cell window, is curiously echoed in the final scene of Red (1994), one of the subjects of my previous post. 

Journey to Italy

Rossellini and Bergman’s final collaboration, aptly enough, concerned marital strife. Journey to Italy (1954) finds Bergman and George Saunders’ English couple visiting Naples to liquidate some assets gained in an inheritance. Unaccustomed to spending time alone together, they quickly realize they kind of can’t stand each other. So he goes off in search of kicks while she visits museums and historical sites. A startling, now famous moment has both witness archeologists unearthing a pair of clinging corpses, victims of the eruption that consumed Pompeii. Deep history comes to haunt the couple—fleeting pleasures or frustrations whither in the face of the eternal. Even if I don’t quite buy the climatic reconciliation, I believe entirely the difficult questions posed to these characters on their journey. The film is a quietly devastating exploration of long-term love and what it means to confront all we chance to lose. At least, thanks to a few champions, cinephiles and preservationists, we haven’t lost these tremendous films. 

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