Thursday, May 23, 2013

Stromboli (1950) - Directed by Roberto Rossellini

For some reason this film has a way of getting under my skin. I’ve seen it twice in the last few months….the first time because I’d been trying to track down Ingrid Bergman’s films with Rossellini, and the second time because I felt compelled to do so, just because the film was so INTERESTING the first time I watched it. Bergman of course famously sought out Rossellini in a personal letter she wrote to him after seeing Paisan. They eventually had a torrid and scandalous affair, got married, had 3 children together, and eventually churned out 6 films during their collaboration. After viewing Stromboli the second time, I’m convinced it’s a beautiful and messy masterpiece, the kind of film that means something personal to me and strikes a chord, even though I know that not everyone is probably going to receive it with the kind of affection that I hold for it. It is the kind of film that asks more questions than it answers.

Stromboli is written, produced and directed by Rossellini, who had complete control over this film, even though it’s release was fraught with the scandal of the affair. There are at least 2 cuts of the film, one a U.S. release at 81 minutes, and the other cut which is 107 minutes. I’m slightly convinced I have seen both versions, as the first version I watched on YouTube and I think I prefer the longer cut which recently played on TCM. Bergman plays Karin, a Lithuanian refugee at an internment camp in Italy, following WWII, who is picked up by a local Italian man, marries him, and he brings her back to the Island of Stromboli off of Italy, which is his home. Soon after reaching the desolate, lava-strewn island (which contains a monstrous, live volcano at its center), Karin enters a serious period of doubt and questioning. Her despair upon reaching the island is holistic….she feels she has been led astray by blanket promises of her husband and his portrayal of the island, when in fact it is a small, strict, aging society, not open to outsiders. Her natural beauty is at odds with both the local women, and the rugged volcanic island. She can also barely communicate with anyone, not even her husband. She can’t speak Italian, and the broken English spoken by some of the residents leads to mostly frustration. She desperately wants to leave the island and voices her opinion often. The film examines her ennui and existential crises, and grows increasingly tense, as she becomes pregnant, the volcano erupts, and she attempts a traverse of the mountain to the other side of the island.

I’m not sure how Rossellini originally intended the film to be viewed, but I have found it interesting that, at least in the prints I have seen, he does not provide subtitles. Even while the Italians are speaking in their native language, the subtitles are not provided. One way to interpret this is that perhaps Rossellini wants us to feel as though Bergman feels, meaning the sense of confusion, alienation and isolation. On the other hand, it might just be that during the editing of the prints that subtitles were never provided, or the two prints I've seen have been poor. I would be interested to hear if anyone has seen a print that DOES contain subtitles.

Rossellini’s choice of filming on Stromboli is the masterstroke, as it provides a gritty, rough texture to the frame, which allows Bergman’s beauty to stand out even more. She is breathtaking in this film and as beautiful as she ever was in any other film. The dry and lava strewn island provides a sort of visual symmetry to the emotionally fraught film as well, kind of like Antonioni’s symmetry  of environmental and human degradation in Red Desert. So here, Rossellini assimilates the erupting volcano to Karin’s despair. In a sense, she disrupts the balance of the island and the island can’t take anymore. She brings a carnality and a worldliness not found there, and everyone from the local men, to the priest, to the women find themselves charged up in one way or another by her presence. It is appropriate to mention Antonioni as I did though. Stromboli seems to presage films like L’aventura, L’ecclise etc. that would rock the cinematic world with their distinct portrayal of emptiness and existential crises, and of the wandering and of the internalization of a character’s disenchantment. In Rossellini’s hands, though, this mode of storytelling comes across as less of a honed “design” or specific thematic tendency and more a necessary approach to the content, the outdoor space, and the story. There is a naturalness here that is not apparent in Antonioni’s films. There’s a stretch of about 10 minutes in Stromboli where Bergman sobs in despair, and meanders about the town, searching for a crying baby she hears in the distance. The sequence goes on for what seems like an eternity, and the camera just lingers on her and follows her on her search. Nothing really happens, but the allowance for nothing to happen gives the film a vitality, a shifting context, and an improvisatory feel that would become far more en vogue in decades that would follow. It’s one of the best sequences in the film. Of course the finale, where Bergman climbs Mt. Stromboli and stares straight into the fuming crater of the volcano, is a brilliantly composed and shot sequence that brings her to the brink of fate and allows her to perhaps find her inner strength at a crucial moment when all seems lost. I say “perhaps” because nothing is really defined for us as the audience. It is a scene of emotional understanding and awakening, even though we don’t fully comprehend it. It would really be a shame if I did not mention Renzo Rossellini’s lovely score, with strains of string and flute interspersing throughout the film. Like I mentioned above, I don’t think everyone will take to this film. It’s rough around the edges and is a bit awkward at times, probably on purpose. But, the naked emotional honesty and the visualization of Karin’s inner turmoil are unforgettable to me. 


Joel Bocko said...

Definitely my favorite Rossellini, a director I've had some trouble approaching. I've often thought of the Antonioni connection with Voyage to Italy, but less so with this film - thanks for pointing it out. The most astonishing sequence to me, is the fishing trip, which is simply astonishing - like a violent miracle caught on camera.

Jon said...

Thanks so much Joel. I've read your essay before and know you well like it a great deal. I didn't even mention that sequence, but you're right, the fishing sequence is a definitive highlight. I think one version I saw didn't even have this sequence in it! Crazy.

YOu're right about the Antonioni link to Voyage to Italy, of course, but I think Rossellini was channeling something fully through this era that was expanded upon later. He was working through this type of filmmaking throughout the early 1950s especially. Europa '51 is another interesting effort.

Sam Juliano said...

Beautiful review Jon! The great Region 2 label Masters-of-Cinema has this slated for upcoming release, and tasteful cineastes will surely be all over it.

To answer your question Jon, this must-acquire blu-ray/DVD combo most assuredly has the subtitles that the film needs to be fully effective. I must agree with your exceptional essay, that in the end it's a near-great film that asks more questions than it answers.

Tony D'Ambra said...

I have always felt this film has a wider resonance. The displacement and disorientation of migrants to a new land, which is really the back-story of the island of Stromboli, left to the very old and the very young after the able-bodied have ventured for a new life elsewhere. Btw, the image at the top of your post is not from the movie. It was part of a LIFE photo shoot focusing on Bergman, but it is doubly revelatory as the photographer has not only captured her fragile beauty but the suspicion and awe of the island's actual inhabitants.

Jon said...

Hey Tony I am thankful for your comments here. Yes I did know about the LIFE Photo Shoot and she's simply beautiful....and it captures a vibe from the movie even if it's not "of" the movie. I'm glad to hear your appraisal and agree with you.