Italy USA (107 mi) 1950 d: Roberto Rossellini USA Howard Hughes edit (81 mi)
This is a ghost island. Nobody lives here. —Karin (Ingrid Bergman)
This is yet another film that failed at the box office, yet much of this lies in the awkward lead-up to the release, which is confusing by anyone’s standards. Most of the controversy surrounding this film happened before it was ever completed, when actress Ingrid Bergman left her husband and entered into a scandalous affair with the married director, becoming pregnant with the first of three children they would have together, where they eventually got married after the film’s release, but divorced seven years later. STROMBOLI was the first of five features Bergman and Rossellini would make together, but it is the one that most defied audience expectations, especially coming after her roles as a nun in THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (1945) and a saint in Victor Fleming’s JOAN OF ARC (1948). Hollywood blacklisted her from working there again until after she left Rossellini in 1956, where Colorado Senator Edwin C. Johnson called Rossellini a “degenerate” in the American press and a “scoundrel” in the Italian press, while Bergman was called a “disgrace not only to her profession but to all American women” by Lloyd T. Binford, the head of the Memphis Censor Board, refusing to show the film, creating such a fervor that the Hollywood news review Variety broke with their tradition of reviewing only released films and reviewed preview screenings, where they asserted “probably no film in history has received as much publicity as Stromboli.” Paparazzi hounded the shoot, causing the picture to go over schedule and over budget, where it had always been agreed there would be an Italian and an English version of the film, but RKO owner Howard Hughes was so furious with the delays that he dubbed and cut the American version himself, a good 25 minutes shorter, and a version Rossellini disowned, while the director edited the Italian version which wasn’t shown in the United States until half a century later.
After shooting several movies in the bombed-out ruins of war, this completely unorthodox film deals with the unseen interior ramifications, where the war left many emotionally scarred, literally streams of traumatized victims, where it was never easy returning to the world afterwards. In typical Rossellini fashion, this film was shot without a script, which was certainly alien to Bergman, yet it plays into her character that from start to finish has a psychologically alienating relationship with herself and the world around her. Opening in an Italian internment camp after the war, using a largely untranslated, multi-language opening, followed by some often badly dubbed English, Karin (Bergman) is a Lithuanian refugee with nowhere to go, but is wooed on the other side of the barbed wire fence by Antonio (Mario Vitale), a young Italian soldier who offers to marry her and bring her home to his island. With some reservations, she agrees, understanding each knows little about the other, but she figures once she’s out into the world, she can establish other contacts. Her arrival onto the island, however, is a crushing surprise, as it’s nearly uninhabited, situated directly under a live volcano where the residents live under an everpresent threat of peril. What’s truly realistic here is how pitiless and unfriendly Bergman is from the outset, as far away from a Hollywood star portrayal as one could imagine, who doesn’t just express dissatisfaction, but a rather haughty attitude from the moment of her arrival. Her behavior is deplorable, reacting like a spoiled and ungrateful aristocrat, whose treatment of a man who took her out of an internment center is despicable, as from here she’s free to make choices she wouldn’t have had otherwise, but she doesn’t see it that way. Instead, she feels just as confined, perhaps more so, than at the camp, where she at least had friends. Here she’s melodramatic and hysterical, forcing her distraught feelings of anguish and isolation onto her husband before he has a chance to do anything about it, becoming insufferable, taking it all out on him, as if he’s responsible for the war and its aftermath, where she basically tells him he can’t afford a woman like her, that she’s too good for this place, “I’m different, very different from you. I belong to another class.”
The stark images of poverty are overwhelming, yet sublimely realistic, a tiny town nestled under the force and influence of an immense mountain that occasionally spews fire and gas. Shot on a desolate island with primitive conditions providing raw physical images, the film reveals the internal world through ordinary, everyday images, where there’s little story to speak of, more a series of occurrences, including many gorgeous shots of fishermen at sea, or children playing in the water alongside sand and jagged rocks, where there’s an interesting use of a baby crying alongside her emotional meltdown, an innocence broken by circumstances beyond their control. What this film does do is keep the camera on Bergman, whose entrapment is recorded in long takes, extended scenes of her ongoing, existential crisis and her resultant loss of faith. There’s a brilliant overhead shot of Bergman trapped like a rat in a maze, where she desperately cries to herself “I want to get out,” exasperated by the turn of the events, the heightened emotional music (written by the director’s brother), as well as the continued cries of a baby throughout. Karin has little understanding of the effect she has on others, where just to be seen with another man is scandalous (sound familiar?), where she is spied upon and treated with vile contempt as an unwanted outsider, until eventually even her husband turns against her. Rossellini tends to focus upon landscapes, where after a volcanic eruption, the entire village moves to safety at sea, where what’s significant is the internal imbalance and discord everywhere, not just in Karin’s life. But after an inappropriate attempt to seduce the priest for desperately needed money supposedly leaves her no way out, she tries to escape on foot, thinking she can reach larger boats (with motors!) on the other side of the island. The mountain erupts with fire and gas along the way, as she’s literally consumed by sulphurous fumes (a member of the crew actually died of a heart attack), where all the fumes they breathed in the shooting are real Stromboli Final Scene - YouTube (in Italian 8:20). The final eruption sequence has a poetic ambiguity about it, as like Moses on Mount Sinai, she has an existential crisis of confidence not only with God, but with her doubting faith in herself, where her ravaged inner spirit is on the brink of exhaustion. The question of whether she, or anyone in the film, can transcend the disillusioning boundaries of their human confinement remains unanswered, as in the end she resembles the crying child, where like learning to crawl and stand on her own, this is still something she has yet to grasp.