Stromboli (1949, Roberto Rossellini)

I didn’t hate this movie, but neither did I feel much sympathy for the lead character – and for the most part, she’s all we’ve got. Ingrid Bergman is a Lithuanian in a post-war displaced-women camp within Italy, denied her visa to Argentina, no family so no place to go. Hence, she agrees to marry some Italian who proposes through the barbed-wire fence, even though she doesn’t know him and speaks very little Italian. He whisks her away to the volcano town of Stromboli, which gives the movie its title since William Castle had already taken When Strangers Marry.

The music sounds doomed, and Ingrid is shocked at her new husband Antonio’s home, a poor, crumbling house in a near-deserted city beneath the volcano. “I’m very different from you. I belong to another class.” She cries in her room while a baby cries in the other room. I figured the movie is telling us that she’s being a baby, and I’d agree, but Rossellini allows her to get increasingly worse, asking the local priest for money, trying to run off with the lighthouse keeper, eventually escaping her husband (a hard-working fisherman who can’t adjust to his newly-pregnant wife’s attention-drawing big-city hysterics), running up the volcano (the second Rossellini movie in two years that ends with a pregnant woman, outcast from her small town, climbing a mountain) and shouting at God, making demands, just like she’s shouted at everyone else in the movie.

Maybe R.R. doesn’t want us to root for anyone, just presenting a story, saying this is how things are sometimes. Bergman’s character admits her faults, sums it up nicely: “They are horrible… I’m even worse.” The volcano eruption before her escape is probably highly symbolic, and her god-shouting at the end is supposed to be redemptive… or is it? I couldn’t figure it out, hence all the quoting below.

F. Camper on the ending:

[Tag] 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. … [this argument] seems to turn mostly on how broadly one conceives of grace, which perhaps depends on whether one is or is not Christian.

H. Salas in Senses says this film began R.R.’s “modern” period, during which Marxist critics accused him of betraying neorealism and Cahiers declared him the father of modern film. Elsewhere in Senses, J. Flaus defines its modernity – the most simply convincing explanation of Rossellini’s achievements that I’ve yet read:

Rossellini broke with the conventions of the classical narrative form which had dominated dramatic film from the introduction of sound in the late 1920’s. … If we have a [disappointed] response to Stromboli it will probably be because we are trying to assess it by the very conventions it seeks to depart from. … Rossellini directed Stromboli and other films of this period as though theatrical drama had never existed. His camera covers the action with few cuts or tight framings while the interaction between characters may seem ‘superficial’, lacking the familiar layers of development. Essentially he tells his story without expression: dialogue does not explore its subject matter, actors don’t ‘act’ so much as they ‘behave’, images are not ‘beautiful’ pictures of their subjects.

Rossellini moderates what might otherwise be too stringent a method: he chooses his moments to conform to the ‘rules’ and not only moments but even an entire sequence, such as the extraordinary scene of harvesting the shoal of tuna. But for the greater part of the film the narrative may seem to be merely outlines, not ‘filled in’. That was his artistic mission: not to sweep the rules away entirely, but to uncover a genuine cinematic experience which had been overlaid by the habits of another related but different art form.

Also great from J. Flaus: “For many of Rossellini’s generation, to walk out on a marriage is to cross a volcano.”

B. Stevenson’s analysis is almost impossible to quote in part since it seems like two massive sentences pointing out a similar trajectory in Bergman’s character over this and the next two movies (“descent, purgation and salvation”), and how the rough terrain of the island and volcanic eruption tie into the landscapes and warfare of the previous trilogy.

F. Camper:

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).

Deleuze creates his own trilogy out of this movie, Europa 51 and Germany Year Zero. He wrote about it in Cinema 2: The Time-Image, which I don’t have, or at least can’t find right now.

M. Grost, who mentions that it was shot near the islands used for L’Avventura:

One of the best scenes in the film shows a maze-like group of buildings from which Bergman is trying to escape. She wanders a great deal through them, and never does find her way out. But she gets some emotional relief from a large cactus plant in the background at one point. Later, she will have a similar plant inside her house: an innovation never heard of by the local islanders. … The politics of Stromboli recall those of Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema. Both deal with Sicilian fishermen. Both films express great pity about the extreme poverty and primitiveness of the life style of the fishermen; both are manifestos demanding improvements in their lot. Yet both films are deeply critical of the fisher society, and the way its inhabitants cling to their traditions.

The dubbing is wicked bad at times (I watched Rossellini’s English version, not his Italian-dubbed edition or the U.S. studio cut). One rabbit and a ton of fish are killed. Locals as actors, except the priest is Renzo Cesana, in two Hollywood movies the same year. Apparently due to a production company dispute (or Rossellini changing girlfriends), a movie called Volcano with the same plot was shot/released at the same time starring Anna Magnani. Nominated for the top prize in Venice but decried in the U.S. senate and by the catholic church.