On Friday, the New Republic posted a new article on Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, giving me an opportunity to finally pull together an entry I’d meant to get around to last fall when Criterion released its box set, 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman. For TNR, David Thomson tries to convey the magnitude of the scandal the star and director would spark when they fell for each other in 1948, back when scandals weren’t so quickly brushed away to make way for the next one. “They both gave up spouses and children. For the general public, Rossellini was in character—he was an egotistical, handsome Italian who had had actress mistresses already (notably Anna Magnani)—but with Ingrid it was the nun getting into the gutter. She was condemned in the press; she was denounced on the floor of the Senate, and from other pulpits.”
As for the three films—Stromboli (1950), Europe ’51 (1952) and Journey to Italy (1954; and I did manage an entry on this one when Janus Films sent its restoration out on a theatrical run last May)—Thomson argues that there isn’t “much point in separating them from the turmoil in which they were made, which was painful, comic and entertaining.” Taken together, they’re “also a landmark in the ongoing soap opera in which a man uses film to show what he feels for a glorious woman: it is of the same family as D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti, and so on.”
Stromboli “now stands as one of the pioneering works of modern European filmmaking,” declared Dave Kehr when he was still writing for the New York Times. Bosley Crowther was the paper’s chief film critic when Stromboli first came to town:
The “strange listlessness and incoherence” that Crowther [objected to] represents a studied reaction to the “well made” movie of the day: the rhythms of Stromboli are no longer those of tension and release, of peaks and valleys; its characters no longer the psychologically coherent and clearly motivated figures of popular fiction; its narrative no longer the closed, symmetrical structure of the three-act play.
Instead, Stromboli opens the door to the ambivalent, the aleatory and the unknowable—an opening that would be expanded by Europa ’51 and finally flung wide by Journey to Italy. Through that door came Bresson, Bergman and Antonioni, later to be joined by Godard, Oshima and Cassavetes. Though no single artist, and certainly no single work, can ever be counted the sole source of an aesthetic revolution, it is hard to imagine the contemporary art cinema without Rossellini—he may not have been the first to point the way, but he was certainly the first to take the heat.
“Dissociating himself from the neorealist school wasn’t simple for a director regarded as one of its leading proponents,” writes Sheri Linden in the Los Angeles Times, and at Slant, Jordan Cronk adds: “Still retaining distinct aspects of the vérité sensibility with which he made his name, particularly in the films’ unique sense of locale and ethnography, this (retroactively defined) trilogy of spiritual and existential concern would prove to be Rossellini’s most crucial contribution to the cinematic canon.”
“In each of the films,” writes Patrick Friel for Film Comment, “Bergman plays a woman come unmoored: a war refugee brought to her new husband’s home village on a rocky island wasteland; a socialite who after the death of her son seeks solace through aiding the poor; and a vacationer whose marriage is unraveling while in Italy…. Not yet as minimalist as his later historical films would be, the trio of features finds Rossellini still using formal techniques—framing, editing—in a more overtly expressive manner. Hints of the cool, distanced theatrical style that would dominate a decade later are present, though, particularly in Bergman’s reserved performances. As in his Neorealist films, landscape and locale continue to play a dominant role, but instead of acting as signifiers of realism and authenticity they become metaphorical markers of Bergman’s inner states—desolate volcanic terrain, barren tenement housing tracts, and claustrophobic streets reflecting her psychological distress.”
“The young French critics at Cahiers du cinéma, those who would make the New Wave, found a singular model in these films,” writes Richard Brody for Criterion. “Their enthusiasm for the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Max Ophuls, for movies of lavish precision and grand gesture, was matched by a passion for documentary and a desire to film their own experiences with a confessional authenticity. Rossellini proved to them, with the clarity of a mathematical theorem, that the two sides of their cinematic obsession could be brought together—along with an even more radical intimacy, the on-screen exploration of their relationships with their actors at the time of filming.”
Naturally, Criterion also has essays on each of the films. When Dina Iordanova first saw Stromboli, “it resonated with me as no film had before, intensely and unswervingly… To me, the greatness of this film is that it does not seek to flatter. Rather, it tackles head-on the tribulations and the insolence that a woman may experience in the process of her emancipation.” For Josef Braun, “what makes Stromboli so unforgettable are its documentary aspects: the cast of locals; their singing, mournful even when celebratory; the mythical manner in which Rossellini captures their tuna fishing rituals; an actual volcanic eruption, with the villagers watching the whole thing from boats just off the shore. The collision of Bergman’s inherent glamor and the very real rugged island life surrounding creates an engrossing frisson.”
“At the heart of Roberto Rossellini’s art is a trio of crucial oppositions, between the humane and the inhumane, between active and frozen states of being, and between the narrowness of self-centered materialism and the limitlessness of a larger, all-embracing love.” Fred Camper: “In Europe ’51, Rossellini’s key stance—a statement we truly need to hear today—is against the self-centered vanities of our complacent consumerist lives…. Rossellini cited several inspirations. One was the life of Saint Francis, the subject of his 1950 The Flowers of St. Francis. While shooting that film, he had wondered, ‘If Francis… came back to earth today, how would he be treated?'” Daniel Walber at Film.com: “Bergman’s stranger in a strange land finally becomes a symbol of faith and goodness in Europe ’51. It’s no wonder that her final role for Rossellini would be Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954). A director who had always pushed the mundane boundaries of Neorealism had, with the help of the love his life, broken them completely and walked through the gates heaven.”
Paul Thomas, quoting Rossellini, argues that Journey to Italy “has come down to us as a test case in how to really watch a film, where ‘the poetry, the mystery, everything that completes and enlarges tangible reality’ is emphasized, foregrounded as never before.” It “stars Bergman and George Sanders as a married couple who are taking a trip to Napoli after the death of Bergman’s uncle, to check out, enjoy, and eventually sell a small villa she’s inherited,” notes Bill Ryan. “Very quickly—right around the beginning of the film, in fact—they both almost simultaneously realize that this trip is the first time they’ve really been alone together and the result of that intimacy is near total indifference.” For Ioncinema‘s Nicholas Bell, this is “a delicately and delightfully crafted exploration of relationships, complacency, and the evocation of our connections to our anthropological roots.” And writing for Indiewire, Matt Brennan argues that Journey to Italy “deserves consideration along with Tokyo Story, The Earrings of Madame de…, Rear Window and Pather Panchali as a major work of early 1950s world cinema.”