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This review of Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli is also available on the Chicago Reader Web site, in the form that it appeared in the print version of the newspaper, in the issue of September 29, 2000. I have made a correction or two and will shortly be adding some stills to this version. Fred Camper 


Movie Reviews and More

Volcano Girl

Stromboli

Directed and written by
Roberto Rossellini.

With
Ingrid Bergman.

Rating
* * * *
Masterpiece

By Fred Camper

In 1948 Ingrid Bergman probably then the most famous movie actress in the world came upon a Manhattan theater showing Roberto Rossellini's Paisan. Impressed by the "realism and simplicity" of his Open City two years earlier, she wandered in and watched what she called "another great movie" in a nearly empty house. Later she wrote him an admiring letter that concluded "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."

Rossellini, an Italian cut off from the Allies' cinema during the war and not much interested in Hollywood filmmaking anyway, had in fact never heard of Bergman an acquaintance advised him of her fame. But then he understood that her willingness to act for him meant he could raise money for almost any film he wanted to make. He cabled his reply, they soon met, there were discussions with producers, and Howard Hughes himself enamored with Bergman agreed to provide financing.

Meanwhile Rossellini and Bergman began an affair, though both were married to others, and soon conceived a child. The massive condemnation that resulted, which included denunciations from senators, religious leaders, and citizens' groups, seems almost incomprehensible today. It was thought that the public furor would result in financial success for the film they made, Stromboli. But despite a publicity campaign for its 1950 U.S. release that included lines such as "Flaming Volcano! Flaming Emotions!" critical and popular response was negative. Shot on a desolate Italian island whose volcano conveniently erupted during filming, Rossellini's unconventional, meandering narrative with mystical overtones was far from what Bergman's fans were used to. Further, his original 105-minute cut was released here in a butchered 81-minute version that added a fatuous voice-over narration. As far as I know, the Saturday and Sunday showings of Stromboli at the Gene Siskel Film Center represent the Chicago premiere of Rossellini's original cut.

After the war Rossellini's neorealist films impressed the world with their raw, anguished vision of Europe in ruins. But as Rossellini himself said later, one could not go on making films in bombed-out cities; Stromboli (made in English and Italian versions) also reflected the ruins of war but in a different context. Bergman portrays Karin, a Lithuanian woman who'd fled the Nazis and eventually found herself in a displaced-persons camp in Italy. Denied a visa to Argentina and courted by Antonio, an Italian fisherman who tries to kiss her through the camp's barbed wire, she seizes what she considers her only option and marries him. Accompanying him back to the isolated island of Stromboli she sees that virtually the whole place is a volcano. ("Is it always active?" is her initial response and it is.) She also realizes that the island has few amenities and fewer people and that most of the young natives leave if they can.

She too immediately wants to leave, haughtily declaring that she can't live in "filth," that she's different from Antonio: "I belong to another class." He tries to accommodate her by employing workmen to help renovate their modest home, but the artistic touches she introduces alienate the island's people, who feel she lacks "modesty." (Though Stromboli is hardly a suspense movie, stop here if you don't want to learn the ending.) Thwarted in her attempts to emigrate, falsely suspected of an affair with a lighthouse keeper she flirts with, pregnant with her husband's child, and finally boarded up in their home by him, she escapes and decides to walk to a village on the other side of the island, hoping to catch a boat from there. The difficult journey strips her first of her luggage and then of her pride; awed by the majesty of the volcano, she's reduced to sobs, eventually calling to God.

It's clear she's been utterly transformed, but the question of what happens next, of where she goes, is left open. Early drafts of the story, an early edit of the film, and the original American release had her returning to her husband; Rossellini's cut, however, leaves her on the mountain. The director later said that he didn't know what she did when the film ended, that he simply wanted to take her to a "turning point."

Tag Gallagher, in his copiously researched, lively, fascinating biography The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini points out that Stromboli reflects both Rossellini's and Bergman's lives: Bergman was pregnant with Rossellini's child; he felt he was helping her escape a stultifying marriage. The way Rossellini's camera observes her informal attire and sunlit face gives the film the air of a love letter surrounded by a cast of amateurs and a barren landscape, Bergman's acting and beauty stand out even more strongly than in her Hollywood films. Gallagher also points out that, at the time Stromboli was made, Rossellini gave it an unmistakably Christian interpretation, saying that at the end "God [forces] her to invoke the light of Grace." A decade later, however, when he was speaking to interviewers with different views and perhaps had changed himself, he declared such interpretations misunderstandings.

Understanding Stromboli's devastating majesty Rossellini's power to reduce Karin to tears by its end depends on understanding its imagery. This is a bit of a paradox because Rossellini was not a conscious stylist. He was baffled when a French film student asked a specific question about the editing of one of his films, and later worried aloud that the student's films would resemble "algebra." Indeed, Rossellini might be said to have been an antistylist. He favored no compositional or editing motifs. His images feature no particular use of angles or lines or flatness or depth. His juxtapositions of moving and still shots, of long shots and close-ups, seem to follow no system.

This view of his work is consistent with statements he made to interviewers over the years, recently collected in My Method: Writings & Interviews, edited by Adriano Apra. "Beautiful shots...[make] me sick!...The only thing that is important is rhythm." And "I always try to remain impassive." Offering an abstracted plot of Stromboli and of many other Rossellini films as well he describes neorealism as "following someone with love and watching all his discoveries and impressions; an ordinary man dominated by something which suddenly strikes him a terrible blow at the precise moment when he finds himself free in the world. He never expects whatever it is. What is important for me is the waiting."

Yet Rossellini's films are far from anonymous stylistically despite their casual, improvisational feel some sections of Stromboli have even been mistakenly called documentary. He does make meaningful visual choices. Despite the mounting confrontations between Karin and Antonio and between Karin and the islanders, he rarely juxtaposes oppositional close-ups or even intercuts two people, one from the back, in traditional reverse-angle shot-countershot; when he does, the scenes have a powerful impact because they're so much at odds with the rest of the film's imagery. Characters are mostly depicted in context: in two-shots (showing both people in the conversation), in long takes in which a one-shot becomes a two-shot, in images that set figures within the spectacular landscape. Here as in virtually all his films, Rossellini focuses less on individual wills than on relationships among the characters, between them and the world, between characters and history, and, in Stromboli, arguably between Karin and God.

Also essential to Stromboli's imagery is its expansiveness. This is not simply a matter of filming characters against the mountain or the sea; in every frame Rossellini manages to suggest more than is visible. As the small vessel taking the newlyweds to Stromboli departs, Rossellini pans along a docked boat. At first there seems no reason for it, though like most pans it does open up the space. Soon the newlyweds' craft is revealed behind it, and we realize that the speed of the pan matches that boat's movement: the journey to Stromboli comes to seem a spatial opening up, especially since Rossellini then dissolves to the couple's boat on a more open sea. That openness is later denied by the uncomprehending islanders and by forbidding shots of the volcano but reconfirmed in the film's powerful ending. Another expansive choice follows an early quarrel outdoors, which ends in a close two-shot as Antonio tells Karin that she will stay on the island because she's his wife. Rossellini cuts to an extreme high and far shot of them, a relatively conventional device to emphasize the weight of a dramatic moment. In a Hollywood film such a shot would remain static, but Rossellini first pans slowly with the couple as they walk to the left, then continues past them and pans up to the volcano.

Rossellini allows Karin to wander, and his observational camera simply follows her. In an early scene she meanders about the village, presented in long shot from above as a labyrinth, while we hear a baby crying. Removed from the civilization that even at its most barbaric she learned to negotiate we later learn that she slept with an occupying officer, and not without feeling some attraction she desperately seeks meaning in her surroundings, trying to heal the alienation she feels. Peering into the face of a young child, she finds no answers; discovering a small plant growing among rocks, she rubs it against her face.

The extraordinary degree of interiority and uncertainty Rossellini permits Karin in this 1949 film, echoed in some of his four later films with Bergman (another of which, Voyage to Italy, is being shown at the Film Center Thursday), has long been said to anticipate both the French New Wave and the subjective cinema of Fellini and Antonioni. But Rossellini is not modernist enough to valorize or even accept alienation; instead he presents it as an excess of pride, a lack of balance that must be corrected. Comparing the ending of Antonioni's Eclipse with that of Stromboli makes the difference between the two attitudes vivid. Both are scenes of women (and both actresses were the directors' lovers) wandering alone. But where Monica Vitti traverses a desolate urban landscape, Rossellini's lush ending, with its subtly choreographed movements and sunlit compositions, leads to a kind of epiphany. This of course confirms the film as a love note, not only to Bergman but to Stromboli and to the natural world.

Camera and character movements throughout the film express the complex, shifting relationships among the characters and between the characters and the land, transforming our view of what's on-screen. One-shots become two-shots; movements following characters become landscape pans; landscape pans begin to follow characters. Rossellini subtly weaves together humans and their surroundings, whereas in most Hollywood dramas the characters are the masters of their settings Thomas Dunson literally made the land his property in Red River.

Rossellini's intertwining of characters is never more subtle or disturbing than in Karin's scene with the island priest midway through the film. Hoping to get a few thousand dollars for herself and Antonio to emigrate, she tries to seduce him. Beginning with a medium close-up of her as she tells the priest her troubles, the scene proceeds as an elaborate dance between the characters: the priest circles her, or she turns her face to him in ever more urgent appeals, until he's compelled to give in or see her out. He does the latter, and the scene ends with him touching his brow with his hand Rossellini allows even this minor character interiority. The subtle relationship of camera and character movements articulates a drama of human ego, of a woman whose selfish desires drive her to tempt a priest into violating his vows.

Rossellini began the 1950 essay "Why I Directed Stromboli" by stating "one of the toughest lessons from this last war is the danger of aggressive egotism," which he said leads to "a new solitude." This is the theme that unites Stromboli's subject and style. Karin's redecoration of their home, with affectations such as chairs with very short legs, represents the antithesis of Rossellini's approach to style. The villagers' idea that she lacks modesty is correct: rather than try to understand their life and traditions, she imports tastes from a different culture. But in the film's view they're no more modest than she, with their narrow-minded judgments, facile misreadings, and harsh condemnations. Nor is Antonio blameless; he ultimately asserts his dominance over Karin by force. Almost no one here is able to transcend the boundaries of his or her own mind.

Like many of cinema's masterpieces, Stromboli is fully explained only in a final scene that brings into harmony the protagonist's state of mind and the imagery. This structure also evident in films as diverse as Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm and Carl Dreyer's Ordet suggests a belief in the transformative power of revelation. Forced to drop her suitcase (itself far more modest than the trunks she arrived with) as she ascends the volcano, Karin is stripped of her pride and reduced or elevated to the condition of a crying child, a kind of first human being who, divested of the trappings of self, must learn to see and speak again from a personal "year zero" (to borrow from another Rossellini film title).

The volcano serves as a wonderful backdrop and metaphor for Rossellini's attack on preconceived notions. His compositions change constantly the landscape's verticality results in shifting perspectives and the volcano's smoke and steam are constantly reshaping what we see. The earth, vividly presented as a living being, breathes and transforms itself and ultimately Karin at every turn, reminding us that volcanoes, like earthquakes and glaciers, are markers of time, evidence that the whole surface of our planet was thus made and will thus be remade. Rossellini uses no formula, no algebra, no simple nostrum to explain the world, which he renders, in Karin's words at the end, as "mystery" and "beauty." Abandoning her ego-driven quest, she realizes she "can't go back" because "they don't know what they're doing" and indeed our views of the volcano make the islanders' concerns, even the priest's, seem hopelessly petty. But Karin also says, "I am even worse." Rossellini's version ends with her sobbing calls to God and a pan along a rocky ridge, following birds in the sky.

Rossellini begins the English version of Stromboli with a quotation from Romans 10:20: "I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me." (The Italian version begins with a similar quotation from Isaiah.) This quote unites his antistyle with the film's narrative: revelation cannot be sought or planned; it comes when least expected. Though most accounts of Rossellini's life reveal that it was full of lies, deceptions, a love of seduction and luxury, and bad debts, in his films he managed to wrest from his own chaos a vision of true selflessness transcendence not of the material world but of the mind's limits. His focus on "turning points" in Stromboli and other films represents an openness to all possibilities in sympathy with his imagery's expansiveness. His is one of the few genuinely liberating visions cinema has given us: from his films I've learned to question the biases of my own perceptions, to always wonder how much they're inflected by possessive desire.

The argument Gallagher mentions over whether Stromboli's ending is an expression of grace or simply the story of a human stripped of ego which was also apparently Rossellini's argument with himself seems to turn mostly on how broadly one conceives of grace, which perhaps depends on whether one is or is not Christian. What's clear is that the film's ending makes explicit its tendency throughout to strip away all preconceptions, presenting the cosmos as incalculably vast.


Copyright  © Fred Camper 2000

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