When married Ingrid Bergman went to Italy and began an affair with married film director Roberto Rossellini, it created a huge scandal. HUGE!! Get this: Bergman was actually condemned by the Congress of the United States. (Because, as you know, no member of Congress ever had an extra-marital affair.)
We don’t know if Bergman went to Italy to have a torrid affair; she initially went to star in the Italian neo-realism film, Stromboli. Italian neo-realism was an emerging film genre after World War II – a sparse, unglamorous style of filmmaking that feels like a documentary.
Stromboli is a small volcanic island off the coast of Italy. It is to this island that Bergman comes to live with her new husband (Mario Vitale), a fisherman she met in a displaced person’s camp in Italy. They arrive at a village of mostly aged inhabitants, a group of clique-y villagers who are disapproving of Bergman and her modern ways.
Bergman hates the island and it’s not long before she’s begging Vitale to take her Away From All This. Vitale refuses; this is his home, these are his people. Of course, this creates friction in their marriage and, adding to their troubles, is the lighthouse keeper’s attraction for Bergman. Not only that, she attempts to have an, uh, unorthodox friendship with the village priest.
Bergman is radiant in this film; she’s almost too groomed to be a refugee. Her acting here seems more organic than in her previous roles. Yes siree! Bergman is all I’m-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar in her portrayal of a desperate person stuck on an actual and metaphysical island.
Yet. One of the problems we have with Stromboli is that none of the characters are likable. We want to feel sorry for Bergman, stranded on this island with no electricity or running cars; where brush and scrub pass for foliage; where people speak in Italian that is rarely translated. Plus there’s that volcano, and you know how they get sometimes.
We suspect Rossellini isn’t as concerned with our empathy for his characters as he is with showing us life in post-war Italy. One of his themes is abandonment and loneliness; another is violence.
Even though there are hints of brutality between humans, it’s Rossellini’s gritty footage of animals that really makes us flinch. For example, in one scene a ferret attacks and kills a rabbit, a graphic reminder that life on the island is cruel.
Another problem is Rossellini’s exploration of the many faces of Bergman. He indulges her excessively: Bergman cries, Bergman is lost, Bergman feels sorry for herself, Bergman sulks, Bergman smells some leaves. (Oops! We may have just given away the whole movie.)
Ultimately, the thing about Stomboli - and Italian neo-realism in general - is the point, as in: What is it? Rossellini doesn’t spell it out for us. He allows us to take what we will from the film. Neo-realism refuses to be sharply defined or placed neatly in a package. Isn’t that the way life is, sometimes?
Stromboli is not a light-hearted movie; you have to be in the mood for it. But if you want to see the film that ignited the Bergman-Rossellini scandal, and if you’re interested in Italian Neo-realism, then you must make time for Stromboli.
Stromboli: starring Ingrid Bergman, Mario Vitale, Renzo Cesana. Directed by Roberto Rossellini. Bero Films & RKO Radio Pictures, B&W, 1950, 80 mins.