Sex and Volcanoes: Three Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman

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Every Ingrid Bergman fan knows the story. It began in the spring of 1948, when the Swedish screen legend wrote a letter of admiration to Italian director Roberto Rossellini. The next year they made a movie together, “Stromboli.”  Filming on location in the remote Aeolian Islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea, they fell in love. Both were already married. In February of 1950 Bergman gave birth to their first of three children. The ensuing scandal, which included a denunciation on the floor of the United States Senate, made her persona non grata in the United States. The two married in May of 1950, and remained together until 1956.

They made five films together in those years. Three of them, the same three being released by Criterion this week, tell of foreign women lost in the beguiling and overwhelming Italian landscape. This theme goes well beyond the intimidating backdrop of windswept, rocky Stromboli. Bergman’s trio of troubled heroines confronts the urban frenzy of Rome and Naples, the sparse and stoic archeological sites of Pompeii, and not one but two volcanoes. Yet in each film her response is different, ever more spiritual and dynamic. Beginning with “Stromboli” and continuing through “Journey to Italy” (1954) and “Europe ’51,” (1952) there is a larger thematic arc. It is an ascendance, though not in chronological order.

The first moments of Bergman and Rossellini’s screen collaboration are in the cramped dormitory of a refugee camp, filled with displaced women from across Europe. Among them is Karin, a Lithuanian woman applying for immigration to Argentina. When he request is denied, she goes with her next best option: marrying Antonio, a young Italian fisherman being held next door as POW. The fence separating the refugees from the Italian POWs is of particular fascination to Rossellini, the first of many boundaries that surround Karin with forbidding hostility.

After the wedding, Antonio takes Karin to his small island home. It is hardly a paradise. Stromboli’s volcano is still active, bubbling and prone to violent episodes. Its inhabitants are oppressively traditional, and the women wear only black. The village and its people merge with the volcano, becoming a single hostile landscape. The emptiness of the community, depleted by emigration to America, only exacerbates the problem.

Two particularly extraordinary moments take place on the water, emphasizing Karin’s alienation as if she were surrounded by a school of judgmental fish. The first is a stunning sequence in which she goes out to surprise Antonio, only to be taken aback by the brutality of tuna fishing. Later on, when the volcano itself explodes onto the town, all of the people rush out into their boats and watch the fire and lava descend, helpless. Karin gazes blandly at the fiery landscape, isolated and misunderstood.

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And so she climbs. Karin’s direct, defiant assault on Stromboli’s central volcano is an inspiring, if blunt gesture. It also sits in stark contrast with Bergman’s second magmatic excursion, one of her many sightseeing outings in “Journey to Italy.” This time she plays Katherine, an Englishwoman on a trip to Naples with her husband, Alex (George Sanders). Like Karin she is stuck in a fraught marriage, but unlike Karin she has freedom of movement. She and Alex spend as little time together as possible, wandering about the Bay of Naples and contemplating the possibility of divorce.

There’s a long tradition in English literature to view Italy as a place of infectious loose morals. E.M. Forster, for example, sent middle class characters not too different from Katherine and Alex to Tuscany, in order to give them spiritual (or sexual) awakenings. Always armed with a guidebook, they inevitably find something much more abstract and thrilling. Katherine belongs to this tradition, but Rossellini plans a different kind of revelation.

The Naples she visits is beautiful, but it is also dead. She walks through catacombs filled with skeletons, abandoned temples, and finally the entombed city of Pompeii. These potent locations, all haunted by the physical forms of the long-deceased Greeks and Romans, seem to threaten Katherine with the specter of her own death, or at least the morbid state of her marriage. Yet at the same time they are only passive symbols, representations of a past that can linger and influence but not necessarily drive her into Mount Vesuvius. “Journey to Italy,” by guiding its leading lady through the depths of Neapolitan history, brings Bergman’s foreigner character out of her desperation and into a new sense of understanding.

Finally, “Europe ’51” is the spiritual mountaintop (despite being the only film without a volcano). Bergman is Irene, a wealthy French woman living in Rome. She begins as a self-absorbed, stereotypical patrician with little regard for Michele, her young son. Then disaster strikes. Her family is hit with the worst of tragedies, and she has no recourse but to wake up and accept responsibility. Her grief transforms her, and turns her out into the world.

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Yet there are no relics of long-lost civilizations or towering natural wonders to shape Irene. Instead, there is the great urban nightmare of poverty and industry and smoke. Karin’s volcano has become the towering apartment block, where families live ten to a room. Katherine’s quiet tombs are now the booming, challenging factories where workers surrender their independence and their hope. Irene takes in all she sees and absorbs it. She will not run away, she will not learn to make do. She becomes a vessel of love, morphed by her confrontation with the violence of the city into a female Saint Francis of Assisi.

Sadly, her piety is too much for the world. The powers that be don’t know how to handle sainthood, be they political, religious or medical. This is immaterial. 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. The end of their professional and personal collaboration is a bittersweet moment in the history of cinema. The consolation for those wondering what more they could have accomplished is that they could have gone no higher.

Criterion's "3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman" set is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.