Double Feature

Introspection July 14, 2020  


On Stromboli and Journey to Italy, two crucial collaborations between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini


ngrid Bergman knew she had to write director Roberto Rossellini a letter. It was 1947. The actress was at her professional apogee — thriving in the U.S. film industry

she’d broken into in the late 1930s. (She’d been working in Sweden beforehand.) Bergman, with an Oscar under her belt and already having worked with some of the best filmmakers of the era, had seen Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946). Both movies, now, are widely considered tentpole works of the vastly influential neorealist movement from which Rossellini would eventually become inextricable. Bergman was moved by what she saw. She needed, not merely wanted, to work with him. “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you,” she wrote.


It is well-documented by now that Bergman's

Ingrid Bergman in 1950's "Stromboli."

case for herself served as something of an unwitting double-edged sword. It would help her get her wish — she would make five movies with the filmmaker. But their collaboration would also bring ruin. While shooting their first movie together, 1950’s Stromboli — a project Rossellini had first brought up in his letter responding to Bergman’s initial epistolary pitch — they started an affair. Both were married at the time. Their rendezvous were not able to be kept discreet. About a month before Stromboli premiered in the U.S., Bergman gave birth to her and Rossellini’s child, Renato.


European critics thought the movie was terrific — one of the best of the year. Moralistic Americans were so incensed by the dalliance that the general public’s opinion of Stromboli-era Bergman might be summed up best by a hyperbolic announcement made by the Democratic senator Edwin C. Johnson on the Senate floor. Bergman, he high-and-mightily proclaimed, was a “powerful force for evil.” It didn’t help that the cut American studio RKO released, without Rossellini’s approval, took a gigantic chunk out of the movie’s runtime.


Although Bergman and Rossellini would marry later in 1950, thus “legitimizing” their relationship by the standards of the pearl-clutching U.S. mainstream, it wouldn’t matter much. Bergman was essentially forced into exile. From Stromboli until 1956, she would almost exclusively work with Rossellini. (She would legendarily make a comeback in the U.S. that had shunned her via 1956’s Anastasia, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar.) A contentious period as far as public opinion was concerned. But it was also an artistically lucrative one for both the actress and the director. Together, under a shadow of scandal, Bergman and Rossellini did some of their most indelible work.

Ingrid Bergman in 1950's Stromboli.


n Stromboli, Bergman is Karin, a Lithuanian refugee in Italy. As the action starts in the movie, she is living at an internment camp, awaiting a release. (She was evading Nazis.) Early on in the film, Karin is denied a Visa to

Argentina. She could be here indefinitely, for all she knows. Quickly into the feature, Karin sees an opportunity. A local fisherman sometimes at the camp, Antonio (Mario Vitale), notices her and begins a flirtation. There is a spark there; after a few electric exchanges, Antonio attempts to smooch Karin through the wire that separates him and the refugees. A thought flashes in front of Karin. What if she were to marry Antonio, in a bid to “escape”? It couldn’t be that bad to live in Italy for a while; Antonio says he lives on this great island called Stromboli, between the Italian and Sicilian mainlands. He grew up there. It’s pretty nice. Karin eventually manifests the marital ambition. They participate in a humble ceremony. Antonio assures Karin that her move to Stromboli will beget a wonderful, renewed life. She believes him.


Once they’re a few feet from the shores of Karin’s new home, though, the latter knows instantaneously that this place will not foster the rewarding second act she had had in mind. She had hoped it would, despite her not-exactly-transparent intentions. She confesses later on to have lived somewhat wildly and impulsively in the past. She thought that even though she had wound up in Italy not exactly by choice, things could improve there. “I have sinned, but I have paid,” she says.


Stromboli is a volcanic island — always active, someone confirms. It’s topographically austere. No flowers, no charming wildlife. Just thirsty, scratchy plants and clay and rocks. Karin also finds out that Stromboli residents are as unwelcoming as the geography. A tight-knit community, they are dubious about her intentions. They are unanimously cold to her upon arrival, save for a kindly priest who listens compassionately in the middle of the movie when Karin moans things like “there is no way out; there is no hope” to him. “I can’t take a life like this,” she says a few days after arriving on the island. “You can’t go from one extreme to another.” (She tries, briefly, to seduce him.) Karin lets it be known that she sees these people as beneath her. 


Any earlier attraction she had had to Antonio dematerializes almost as soon as her feet touch the hard and uneven Stromboli land. She is frustrated by his inability to really communicate with her (his English is extremely limited), and, while confident that he loves her, she convinces herself that he could never possibly understand a woman like her. She lets it be known that she sees this man as beneath her. She feels totally isolated. There are recurrent escape attempts. All remain mere attempts.


But Karin also rarely attempts to be introspective, or put her best foot forward. She concludes, early on, that she is going to be miserable and hate it here, that the residents probably hate her and will never stop hating her, that she will never be happy with Antonio. That’s that. Stromboli is sympathetic to her — to a point. Rossellini’s critical view of his protagonist is subversive — an interesting maneuver. We commiserate with her for having been displaced by circumstances over which she had no control, but we are also wary of her apparent inability to see beyond herself. She is as trapped inside her head as she is on this island she, fittingly, feels trapped on. Is the island an extension of herself?


Karin never finds easy peace, or respite, in Stromboli. In fact it ends with her scaling up the island’s hills, plumes of volcanic smoke choking her for most of the climb, and finally breaking down in a fit of tears. “Oh my God!” she cries. “Mercy!” The orchestra blares. It’s the movie’s closing line; the last thing we see Karin do is tilt her face up to the heavens. The grandness of this reminds us that in her lifetime, Bergman played Joan of Arc, Gladys Aylward, Golda Meir. She exudes grandeur even when she's playing everyday women like Karin. The conclusion of Stromboli 

would seem overwrought, laughable even, with a director less assured in his gloomy vision, with an actress less rivetingly impassioned, with a final image less dispiriting: a flock of indifferent seagulls spinning in circles above Karin. It's hardly an allusively spiritual image if there was one.


Before this, we had seen Karin finish climbing a hill, thinking she was close to the top of the volcano, only to see much more hill. A depressing tribute to nature’s (really, the world’s) ambivalence; an ominous microcosm of the real-world opposition Bergman would soon face. If God is real, Karin’s relationship with him could be described as as-askew as hers and Antonio’s. It’s also suggested, though, that this in many ways disappointing moment stirs something within her. Karin will not be the same person she was when she began this aimless excursion. Has she had an epiphany? 


Rossellini’s broadens Stromboli's feeling of unwelcomeness through a couple calculated inclusions of documentary-like footage: a group of fisherman tuna-catching (an activity I didn’t know until watching the movie resembles a swarm when completed on a small scale); of actual Stromboli residents evacuating the island during an eruption. Extended, flashy visual psalms of hostility. Yet in both cases, the hostility seen is better faced when you have others around and have worked to build relationships with them. The tuna catch would be impossible without collaborators. What does one do, in a worst-case scenario, when they are facing a volcanic blow-up, head-on, alone? Alienation is so deeply felt in Stromboli. So is the sense that a feeling of unity and oneness is as within reach as it is nearly impossible to grasp. Rossellini suggests that if Karin just pushed herself forward a little bit, she could grab that unity, oneness. 


In his 1950 essay Why I Directed Stromboli, the director wrote that he had observed during World War II that aggressive egotism could lead to “a new solitude.” We sympathize with Karin and her predicament, but we might also be critical of her narrow attempts to find resolution, her tendency to forever first believe in the worst in someone, her myopic way of thinking that simple gestures — like redecorating her and Antonio’s place — will remedy an entire relationship. She is damagingly self-centered.  


In no way does Stromboli seem to simplistically and subliminally be saying that if your life sucks, then it’s on you to work hard to change it. This movie is more so a feature-length testament to the way that trying to improve the collective rather than solely focusing on improving the self is eternally more rewarding, in the long run, for everybody. Sometimes there are things you can change and sometimes there are things you cannot. Stromboli is a compelling study of a woman who cannot see changeability when it’s most available to her. Until, possibly, that dramatic moment she had at the top of the hill she’d just crawled up. We'll never know for sure. 


lex and Katherine (George Sanders and Bergman), the English couple at the center of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), are coming to the titular country because they want to sell a Naples villa they have recently

inherited from a distant relative. The outing, both think, will function well as both a family-business trip and a nice vacation, particularly for Alex, whose work schedule consumes most of his time. Soon into the movie, though, Katherine notices something that will unambiguously damage the serenity she and her husband are trying out. They’ve been married eight years and “it’s like we’re strangers,” she observes, almost cheerily. They used to be lovers; now it’s like they’re roommates. Alex’s response is sort of rosy.“Now that we’re strangers, we can start all over, right from the beginning," he says. 


The observation sets the course for the rest of the movie, which mostly finds Alex and Katherine going about the vacation separately. They eventually conclude that it will be best to try to get to know themselves, rather than re-familiarize themselves with each other, while they’re here. Katherine mostly visits museums and ruins. Alex roams around and begins flirtations with women decades younger than him. What do they want for themselves? Alex seems to have little attachment to the marriage; the scenes following him individually don’t have much of a kick. We don’t come to care very much about him.


But Katherine, as the vacation continues, more absorbingly realizes how little passion she actually has for her husband. “He ought to be punished for his pride, self-assurance,” she at one point muses to herself. She thinks fondly of a poet for whom she used to have romantic feelings in Journey to Italy and begins to wonder, more weightily than she has ever before, what her life could have been like if she had stood by his side rather than Alex’s. Would she even be saying, after eight years, that she feels as though she and her husband are practically strangers? 


When the spouses come together again toward the end of the movie to visit Pompeii — where they watch archeologists dig up preserved bodies that appear to be a couple wrapped in a tight embrace — Katherine is overwhelmed. Not, apparently, by the overpowering mixture of tragedy and romance, but by the idea of being bound, for an eternity, to Alex. As the film is wrapping up, the couple agrees that they should get a divorce. But then their plans change when they get separated in a crowd and find themselves very frightened of losing each other.


Journey to Italy, like Stromboli, seems a tribute to ego death and how valuable it can be in preserving relationships. Sanders is fine, if not perfunctory. Bergman, in contrast, is stunning as a woman who doesn’t know exactly what she wants for herself down the road but knows that it isn’t quite this. Journey to Italy is a gripping marriage movie; what I like best about it is that the requisite crumbling of a union doesn’t come from a series of blowups but more so a series of solitary micro-journeys, brief brandishes of middle-aged self-discovery. 


Bergman is understated. Yet as in most of her films there’s an ethereality to her. I’m not sure she can quite play an “ordinary woman” in a movie even when she’s doing a good job playing one; all you can think is that this is Ingrid Bergman. Rossellini seems to be especially paying homage to her way of eclipsing the cinematic medium during a sequence where she’s visiting a museum and the camera keeps flitting back and forth between her killer face and the sculpted visages of the Greek statues bordering her. It seems a way of emphasizing the grand albeit not necessarily wrong idea that she is in some way a goddess who once lived among us. It also functions as something of an acknowledgment of the undeniable truth that she is as totemic to movies as those sculpted were to art history.


It’s a provocative idea, series of images. They have stuck with me, and I’m sure have stuck with lots of others; it is more than probable that they have endured in the memory, for many, even longer than the working and personal relationship between Bergman and Rossellini, who would stop collaborating after divorcing in 1957. 


What Bergman and Rossellini accomplished together is almost bigger than themselves — so it goes for most great artists. At some point, the work, the permanent image affixed to the public’s consciousness, ascend to heights the creator cannot go. Rossellini gave Bergman a platform during a trying time (admittedly trying because of a transgression of their own doing), not only resulting in some of her most fascinating work but also in her eventual resuscitation of her beloved public persona. She, in turn, gave a filmmaker with more acclaim than commercial standing a new notoriety.


Rossellini had foresight about what they could achieve together. “Cinema relates with the camera,” he wrote in his letter back to Bergman’s 1947 pitch. “But I am certain, I feel, that with you near me, I could give life to a human creature who, following hard and bitter experiences, finds peace at last and complete freedom from all selfishness. That being the only true happiness which has ever been conceded to mankind, making life more simple and nearer to creation.” Could you possibly come to Europe? Rossellini asks at the end of the note. As much as it cost her in the short-term, I’m glad Bergman said yes.



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