Volcanic Passions: Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) – Blu-ray review
Roberto Rossellini, meet Ingrid Bergman. The first meeting of 1950s art-house cinema’s power couple is a typically tempestuous fusion of Italian neo-realism and Hollywood glamour.
(Roberto Rossellini, 1950)
Most likely all film directors get fan mail; it’s just not very often that the fan is an even bigger celebrity than they are. So when Roberto Rossellini got post from Ingrid Bergman, of course he was going to make a film with her… and if they have an affair while doing so, well that’s just dandy, too.
Stromboli has been rather overshadowed by its behind-the-scenes legend: scandal in Hollywood, and a trio of bambinos (including future star Isabella Rossellini). What tends to be forgotten is how volcanic the accompanying film is – literally so, in its setting on the titular island, but also as a new form of filmmaking, an on-screen marriage between Rossellini’s neo-realist roots and the melodrama that comes from having a mega-star in front of the camera.
This is a very clever story, which lets its casting define the character and the narrative. Bergman is Karin, a Lithuanian refugee trying to make ends meet in the immediate aftermath of WWII. When she meets Italian soldier Antonio, she decides to get married to ensure a future, little realising said future means being trapped on Stromboli, a barren rock whose handful of remaining inhabitants would rather be anywhere else.
So Karin is an intruder, viewed with scepticism – if not downright hostility – by the pious locals for her independence and vitality. Meanwhile, one of the most famous women in the world is making a film with a bunch of largely non-professional actors. Any similarity is a coincidence, obviously.
Rossellini delights in smashing forms together. Bergman is radiant, every inch the film star, but she has to seek out the sunlight in Otello Martelli’s hard-edged cinematography. Meanwhile, Bergman faces being upstaged by her director’s penchant for exhilarating documentary footage, notably a hypnotically edited trip out to sea to see tuna being caught, or actual footage of the volcano erupted and the islanders fleeing the shore via a flotilla of boats.
The film finds equal-opportunities empathy; the arrogant Karin is such a killjoy you feel for her neighbours, yet they are also judgemental hypocrites whose simple faith has calcified into close-mindedness (after all, this is a fire-and-brimstone kind of place), while the local priest hems and haws ineffectually. Thus the film is caught on the cusp of tradition and modernity, religion and celebrity, with Bergman as its crucible – and Rossellini hasn’t figured out all of the answers. The stunning, ambiguous ending is practically a manifesto: Ingrid, I’m not done with you. Let’s keep making films and babies.
Stromboli is released on Blu-ray on Monday 20th July, both as a stand-alone disc and as part of a boxset of Rossellini/Bergman collaborations, continuing the BFI’s great work in bringing Rossellini to disc after its previous War Trilogy release. [The other films in the set will be reviewed at a later date.]