“This film, of astonishing beauty, is a film about the cosmos… STROMBOLI is the poem of creation.” – João Bénard da Costa
When the film historian Tag Gallagher finally completed his long-in-the-making biography, the first to be published in any language, on the great Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini in 1998, he had the good sense to call it The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini. For Rossellini’s career in cinema was itself a series of open-ended adventures: as one of the pioneers of the neorealist cinema in Italy, he forged a new postwar style, working with non-actors in bombed-out cities, that was striking in the way that it dealt forthrightly and courageously with the contemporary atrocities of mid-century Europe. Rossellini then abandoned this early neorealist mode, at least on the surface, instead opting to all but inaugurate a kind of modernism in the cinema through his collaborations with the famous Hollywood actress Ingrid Bergman, whom he eventually married. Though the adulterous relationship between Bergman and Rossellini led to the two of them becoming embroiled in an enormous amount of controversy in the American press, their extended film collaboration — five films made together between 1949 and 1956 — is one of great ethical seriousness, formal adventurousness, and awesome beauty.
Bergman had initially written to Rossellini about the prospect of working together on a film after having seen his neorealist drama Paisan (1946) in a Manhattan theater. The first film that they wound up producing together, Stromboli (1950), combines some of the aesthetic strategies of neorealism — the documentation of real islanders within a fishing community, an emphasis on the harshness of one’s physical environment — with an extension into the realm of melodrama as well as the intimation of a Christian consciousness. One might even summarize what’s going on in this first film by saying that Rossellini drops Bergman, then the most famous movie actress in the world, into a simmering cauldron of neorealism and watches her react.
Bergman plays Karin, a Lithuanian refugee in an internment camp after the war who marries a Sicilian fisherman (Mario Vitale) whom she barely knows, presumably in order to escape. Karin then accompanies him to the wild, rough island of the title, where she’s greeted with hostility by the locals. Rossellini grounds Bergman’s interiority, her struggle with a kind of spiritual isolation, in her experience of nature: his mobile camera, often alone with Bergman, lingers on the desolate rocks and sea, as well as on the active volcano of the island. Karin’s inability to embrace the island and its people leads to a profound inner crisis within her that becomes the very drama of Rossellini’s film. Rarely has an actress and the character she’s playing seemed more difficult to separate. Both Karin and Bergman function as foreign strangers struggling to come to terms with a new, rough land. Karin seems also to be struggling to construct a new reality for herself in a postwar world, and in this regard her performance becomes a kind of interior, emotional neorealism.
Rossellini’s great breakthrough in Stromboli — to shift the film drama inward, and thereby wordlessly narrate a kind of interior disruption of character through performance — is executed with an equally radical approach to visual style. There’s a roughness present in Rossellini’s camera style that may surprise viewers who are accustomed to the clean, classical precision of this period in cinema; the serene, studied camera movements of an Ophuls or a Mizoguchi feel quite removed from what Rossellini is doing here. Rossellini’s camera does move, almost constantly in fact, but not in a manner which calls attention to itself or to the director’s own formal apparatus. Rather, the moving image here seems to be shaped by the world itself, by Bergman’s gradual awareness (and eventual acceptance) of the natural environment surrounding her. The critic Fred Camper has summarized this quality in Rossellini’s style as “a new and original way of looking at the world. He didn’t seek to circumscribe or control the action, but rather to observe it.”
Rossellini also uses editing to gesture us, as well as Bergman, toward a more all-encompassing embrace of the world, especially as a means of guiding us through the aspects of fiction and documentation present in his work. This becomes most apparent in Stromboli’s celebrated tuna fishing sequence, wherein documentary-like shots of huge fish being caught and slaughtered on boats in the open water are juxtaposed against horrified reaction shots of Bergman in close-up. One might even implicitly read this scene as Bergman reacting against the neorealist environment that she’s been placed into, or as a choppy confrontation between the indexical and fictive qualities which sustain Rossellini’s open-ended style. It is difficult to imagine the work of Eric Rohmer (who thought of Stromboli as one of the great Catholic films), especially something like Le rayon vert (The Green Ray, 1986), without the experimental example Rossellini sets here.
Today, Stromboli gets discussed most often in relation to its ending, which remains one of the most ecstatic religious epiphanies in all of narrative cinema. Without giving away too much, I’ll simply say that Bergman approaches the brink of the island’s volcano, where she either experiences a revelation of sorts or receives a kind of grace, depending on how one looks at it. Rossellini isn’t much of a showman, though, and his vision of cinematic revelation would certainly feel out of place in a Hollywood Biblical epic. He had the good sense to know that a complete shift in a character’s understanding of cosmic order simply cannot be depicted in visual terms without coming across as ham-fisted, so he eschews direct imagery altogether.
Instead, what becomes important here is a gradual accumulation of shots which build in power and resonance throughout the film, ultimately (and very mysteriously) leading to our sense that what’s happening can only exist off-screen, in between shots, or perhaps within Bergman herself. For Rossellini, the Christian God, the embrace of nature, and the loss of one’s ego all seem to be synonymous with one another, part of a singular impulse which cannot be represented in words or images. That Rossellini finds a way to begin his work with such decidedly physical elements (rocks, sea, volcano), and subsequently construct a finale of such great cosmological meaning makes for one of the most extraordinary experiences in cinema.
A 35mm print of Rossellini’s classic Paisan was shown at the IU Cinema in February 2017 as part of its continued City Lights Film Series, dedicated to screening masterworks of 20th century cinema. Stromboli has been released in excellent home video editions from Criterion and the BFI, and is also currently streaming on the Criterion Channel in both Italian and English language versions.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.