Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production: Berit Films, for RKO; black and white; running time: 81 minutes, originally 107 minutes; length: 7,300 feet. Released 1950.
Producer: Roberto Rossellini; assistant director: Marcello Caracciolo; screenplay: Roberto Rossellini, Art Cohn, Sergio Amidei, Gianpaolo Callegari, from a story by Rossellini, religious theme inspired by Father Felix Morlion; photography: Ottello Martelli; editor: Roland Gross; sound: Terry Kellum, E. Giordani; music: Renzo Rossellini.
Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Karin); Mario Vitale (Antonio); Renzo Cesana (Priest); Mario Sponza (Lighthouse-keeper); the people of Stromboli.
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* * *
Stromboli was the first of five features which Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman, the others being Europa '51, Viaggio in Italia, Giovanna d'Arco al rogo and La paura. He also directed her in an episode of the portmanteau film Siamo donne. The making of Stromboli was fraught with problems and difficulties. For one thing, the film coincided with the start of the much publicised and, in the United States at least, much frowned-upon affair between Bergman and Rossellini. After the failure of Joan of Arc and Arch of Triumph, Bergman, who was becoming increasingly unhappy in Hollywood and in her marriage, was looking for a way out of both. However, she was highly bankable, and both Samuel Goldwyn and RKO's Howard Hughes showed interest in her idea of doing a picture with Rossellini. In the event Goldwyn backed out after seeing Germany, Year Zero and it was RKO which financed Stromboli. In spite of her feelings for Rossellini, Bergman found the director's improvisatory methods somewhat alien (although she coped far better than George Sanders in Viaggio), conditions on the island itself were primitive and arduous (indeed, during the final eruption sequence one of Rossellini's crew succumbed to the sulphurous fumes and died of a heart attack), the shoot was dogged by inquisitive paparazzi, and the picture went over schedule and over budget. It had always been agreed to release an Italian and an English language version of the film, both of which were to be edited by Rossellini. However, as a result of rows about the budget RKO edited the English version itself, which differs considerably from the Italian one (which Rossellini himself edited) and was disowned by the director.
The existence of two different versions makes it even more difficult to judge this particularly controversial film. With few exceptions (notably Robin Wood, Andrew Sarris, and Peter Brunette), the film has found no friends among Anglo-Saxon critics and, given the treatment meted out by them to Viaggio, it is doubtful that things would have been any different had they seen Rossellini's own version. In France, Stromboli, like the other Rossellini-Bergman collaborations, was championed by Cahiers, and especially by André Bazin, Jacques Rivette, and Maurice Schèrer (Eric Rohmer). Meanwhile, in Italy the situation was rather more complicated; those who disliked the film tended to accuse Rossellini of "abandoning neorealism" (often with the implicit suggestion that this was due to his infatuation with Ingrid Bergman), thus pushing the film's supporters into defending it as a neo-realist text, which is perhaps not the most productive or helpful way to look at Stromboli. The film is set in a Europe still suffering from the after effects of World War II. In order to get out of an internment camp, Karin, a Lithuanian refugee, marries Antonio, a young fisherman from the volcanic island of Stromboli, and goes to live with him there. However, she cannot adapt to life there and decides to escape. Crossing the island she becomes caught up in a volcanic eruption, and the enormity of the event brings her to reconsider her position. The "story" is the same in both versions, but the emphases, and the whole manner of telling, are quite different. In particular the English version comes complete with a portentous commentary which frequently forces a specific reading on scenes which the director preferred to remain "open." This is particularly damaging in the film's climax, where the commentary insists that "out of her terror and her suffering Karin had found a great need for God. And she knew that only in her return to the village could she hope for peace." In Rossellini's version it is by no means clear that Karin has decided to return to the village, nor are her experiences presented in such overtly religious terms, although it is made quite clear that she has undergone a momentous inner experience. As Rossellini himself put it, "a woman has undergone the trials of war; she comes out of it bruised and hardened, no longer knowing what a human feeling is. The important thing was to find out if this woman could still cry, and the film stops there, when the first tears begin to flow."
Equally as damaging as the addition of the commentary in the English version is the excision of all sorts of scenes in which nothing "happens" in a story sense, but a great deal is communicated about Karin and about her ambivalent relationship with the island and her husband. On the other hand, it has to be said that even RKO couldn't turn Stromboli into a conventional narrative film, and that enough of Rossellini's original conception remains for it to have been generally dismissed as simply "badly made!" Such epithets are usually employed à propos the film's apparent casualness, even roughness, of style and construction, but far more to the point is Bazin's remark that Stromboli and the other Bergman films "make one think of a sketch; the stroke indicates but does not paint. But should one take this sureness of stroke for poverty or laziness? One might as well reproach Matisse." Unfortunately, however, while Rossellini's approach may well alienate those looking for the "well-made film," it does not offer the kind of pleasures usually sought by art house audiences. As Robin Wood has pointed out, Stromboli will disappoint cinephiles looking for "striking images, imaginative effects, a sense (whether justified or not) of intellectual profundity. Rossellini's art rests on a paradox. As the true heir (as well as one of the founders) of neorealism, he is committed to showing only the surfaces of physical reality, without distortion or intervention in the form of special effects, surrealist images, dramatic compositions or symbolic lighting (though the last two are not unknown in his work); yet no director is more single-mindedly concerned with the invisible, the spiritual. More than with any other director the essential meaning has to be read behind and between the images, in the implications of the film's movement which rise to the surface only in rare privileged moments whose significance is never overtly explained and which draw their intensity as much from the accumulation of context as from anything present in the image" (Film Comment, July-August 1974).
Stromboli is very much "about" Karin and the development of her consciousness. (On another level it's also "about" Bergman too.) However, what seems to have confused and alienated most commentators is Rossellini's refusal to have anything to do with the conventional paraphernalia of "subjective" cinema. As in the films of Antonioni, only in a much more subtle, less self-conscious fashion, we come to understand the central character largely through the ways in which she is placed in and reacts to the landscape. However, the spectator looks at Karin rather than with her, and we come to understand rather than empathise with her. Such an approach to his central character is absolutely consistent with Rossellini's approach to his subject matter as a whole in the film, which, as befitting his neorealist heritage, remains resolutely objective, and even distanced. As Peter Brunette has noted, one is frequently tempted in Stromboli to ask "where is Rossellini in all of this?" Equally, one wonders whether a good deal of the critical hostility towards this film stems from its refusal to yield any easy answers on this point. The truth is that, just as Rossellini shows rather than explains, so he refuses to come down on the side either of Karin or Antonio/the island, thus leaving spectators the space largely to make up their own minds. The film may focus largely on Karin and her developing consciousness but, as Wood points out, "our sense of the alien-ness of the primitive community seen through Karin's eyes is everywhere counterpointed by our sense of the integrity of Stromboli's culture and its functional involvement with nature, against Karin's sophisticated needs and moral confusion." This, of course, is not the same thing as saying that the film takes Stromboli's side against Karin's (as some have indeed suggested that it does) but, rather, it is simply to be aware of the film's rich ambivalence and the director's openness towards both his material and the spectators of his film. How sad, then, that such admirable sentiments should have resulted in such ill-informed, shortsighted critical vilification.
Stromboli ★★½ 1950
Bergman is a Czech refugee who marries an Italian fisherman in order to escape from her displaced persons camp. He brings her to his home island of Stromboli where she finds the life bleak and isolated and her marriage a trial. In Italian with English subtitles. The melodrama was even greater off-screen than on; this is the movie which introduced Bergman and Rossellini and began their (then) scandalous affair. 107m/ B VHS . IT Ingrid Bergman, Mario Vitale, Renzo Cesana; D: Roberto Rossellini.