Thursday, November 30, 2017

My Favorite Roberto Rossellini Film

Roberto Rossellini was one of the key figures of the Italian Neorealist movement, and the films he made during the '40s in the aftermath of WWII are nothing short of revolutionary. Massively influential for his documentary-style filmmaking and philosophy, Rossellini remains one of the most important figures in Italian cinema. However, his personal life frequently overshadowed his work in subsequent years, particularly his scandalous extramarital relationship with Ingrid Bergman. At the height of both their careers, they became romantically involved and made several films together, starting with 1950's psychological drama "Stromboli."

Based on a real life encounter that Rossellini had in post-war Italy, Bergman plays a Lithuanian refugee named Karin, who is trapped in an Italian internment camp, but finds a way out by marrying an Italian soldier, Antonio (Mario Vitale). He takes her home to the island of Stromboli, which is dominated by an active volcano. Karin experiences great difficulty adjusting to life on the island, which is harsh and barren, and where the insular community of fishermen is suspicious of a foreign newcomer who speaks little Italian. Like Rossellini's other films of the time, nearly all the cast members are non-actors, mostly real natives of Stromboli. The film also features documentary-like segments highlighting various aspects of life on the island.

The film also has strong religious and psychological themes, largely focused on Karin's internal struggle with her isolation and alienation. This is the part of the film that resonated the most strongly with me, the way that the oppressive landscape becomes a character in the film, the environment seemingly insurmountable. The final scenes of Bergman on the volcano, where she finally has an emotional breakdown, are wonderfully affecting. Rossellini's ability to capture the stark nature of the island and its equally stark inhabitants is vital here, but it's Ingrid Bergman's unrelenting performance that makes the movie what it is. There's such a primal, emotional openness to her work here, which helps to make Karin one of my favorite Bergman characters. I honestly can't imagine the film with Anna Magnani, who Rossellini originally had in mind for the role.

"Stromboli" is often considered as the first film in a trilogy, all directed by Rossellini and starring Bergman. Along with "Europa '51" and "Voyage to Italy," they examine the dissatisfaction of independent, strong-minded female characters, who are in unhappy marriages and find themselves outsiders in Italy. In "Stromboli" these themes are the most pronounced, and Karin takes the most drastic actions to confront them. She actively rebels against the social order, eventually attempting a physical escape from her woes at the film's climax. Her screen presence comes off as almost shockingly modern, her character acknowledging complicated desires that threaten the established moral order of the day. The film's resolution is memorably ambiguous, and it's difficult to say where Karin is mentally as she descends from the volcano's crater toward an unknown fate.

It's easy to find parallels between the film and what was going on behind the scenes, where Bergman had to adjust to working with a tiny crew in rugged shooting conditions. Much of the script was improvised, and the non-actors were frequently too intimidated to do much acting and had to be dubbed. Critics of the time were notoriously unreceptive to the film, and "Stromboli" was both a critical and commercial flop despite the raging controversy around the production. However, that didn't stop Bergman and Rossellini from going on to make four more films together, marrying, and having three children. Later film enthusiasts would of course rediscover and rehabilitate the reputations of "Stromboli" and the other films.

Today, "Stromboli" comes across as an unusually experimental, psychologically complex narrative from Rossellini, almost like a precursor to films like Antonioni's "Red Desert" and Teshigahara's "Woman in the Dunes." It displays all the hallmarks of the Neorealist movement and a strong emphasis on some of Rossellini's favorite subjects - spirituality and Italian culture. However, it is also very much an Ingrid Bergman film, and somehow her star power and foreignness didn't overwhelm or take away from the harsh nature of Rossellini's cinema. Instead, the juxtaposition helps to create something unique to their collaborations, which is still immensely powerful all these decades later.


What I've Seen - Roberto Rossellini

Rome, Open City (1945)
Paisa (1946)
Germany, Year Zero (1948)
Stromboli (1950)
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
Europa '51 (1952)
Journey to Italy (1954)
General Della Rovere (1959)
India: Matri Bhumi (1959)
The Rise of Louis XIV (1966)

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