Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Roberto Rossellini | Stromboli, terra di dio (Stromboli)

the abandoned island
by Douglas Messserli

Roberto Rossellini, Sergio Amidei, Art Cohn, Gian Palo Callegar, and Renzo Cesana (screenplay), Roberto Rossellini (director) Stromboli, terra di dio (Stromboli) / 1950

Although Bosley Crowther, film critic at the New York Times for 27 years, surely has written some truly outrageous statements about cinema—he, we would recall, completely panned Bonnie and Clyde when it first appeared—one of his cringe-inducing reviews was that of Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli of 1950:

                            Let’s be quite blunt about it. The story is a common-
                            place affair, completely undistinguished by inventive-
                            ness or eloquence in details. A Czechoslovak woman,
                            whom the handsome Miss Bergman plays, marries an
                            Italian ex-soldier to escape from a displaced persons
                            camp and goes to live with him, without love or interest,
                            on Stromboli’s bleak volcanic isle.

      We might forgive him for forgetting that Bergman’s character is supposedly Lithuanian, not Czech (she has spent time in Czechoslovakia), but the vitriol with which he describes her acting (“clutching herself about the middle and panting violently”) and her character (“the lady’s character—if character she has—is never drawn with clear and revealing definition, due partly to the vagueness of the script and partly to the dullness and monotony with which Rossellini has directed her”) makes it appear he fell into a deep sleep. At the worst his comments border on racism, particularly when he describes actor Italian actor Mario Vitale as “a good-looking dark-skinned little man.”

      The only reason I mention this dinosaur of a critical piece, is that it is was surely occasioned by the general American moral outrage of the day against the affair between the married Bergman and equally married Rossellini that was consummated during the picture’s filming, resulting in a child born out of wedlock. Americans were so wrought up, indeed, that Bergman was even denounced on the floor of the US Senate by Colorado Senator Edwin C. Johnson (it is interesting to perceive that fools have long served on the hill); Georgia banned the film, along with similar measures coming before the Texas and South Carolina legislatures. Bergman’s Hollywood career was destroyed for several years. And the film was spurned by thousands of Americans. I don’t recall the period—I was only three at the time—but I am sure, given their later reactions to the lifestyles of stars and directors, my parents were among the duo’s hecklers, even it was equally clear that they would never have even thought to attend such serious cinema.

      Over the years, fortunately, more level heads have discerned this film, along with at least two other films on which the couple worked, Europe ’51 and Journey to Italy, as being among the most significant films of post-World War II Italy, wherein the great director abandoned certain principles of Neorealism (which his Open City he had helped to establish) and looked forward to France’s New Wave and the films, a decade later, of his fellow countryman, Michelangelo Antonioni. As Dave Kehr, writing on the new Criterion collection in Crowther’s newspaper, summarizes, Stromboli “now stands as one of the pioneering works of modern European filmmaking. The “strange listlessness and incoherence” that Crowther went on to object 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 fictions; its narrative no longer the closed, symmetrical structure of the three-act play.”

      In his home country of Italy, this film also failed, not so much because of Bergman’s and Rossellini’s sexual behavior but because of Rossellini’s seeming betrayal of Neorealism. Indeed Rossellini had come to comprehend that the pretended objectivity of the neorealist style was based on cultural and political assumptions that made those films perhaps less realist than outright plotted melodramas. In Stromboli, Rossellini’s camera does not use images to relate to social or political dilemmas, but rather as a tool to question the psychological complexities of the inner mind as it encounters the “real,” however one defines that.

      The “real” in this case is the Tyrrhenian Sea island of Stromboli itself, a volcanically active world which early in the 20th century was inhabited by a few thousand people, but by the time of Bergman’s and her character Karin’s arrival had dwindled to a few hundred, mostly because of the constant eruptions which continue even today, the most recent occurring in 2003 and 2007. In short, by the time the Lithuanian Karin reached its shores it was, as her husband and friends admit, a nearly abandoned island, a black lava abutment in the middle of the beautiful Tyrrhenian Sea.

     From the very beginning of this film Karin is presented as a kind of enigma. Locked away in an internment camp for her protection, the beautiful Karin is set in opposition to her fellow prisoners, not a beauty except for her among them. Although they discuss possible boyfriends, it is only Karin who successfully communicates with a soldier across the barbed wires. Her soldier, Antonio (Mario Vitale) wants to marry her immediately. Although she scoffs at his suggestion, arguing that he hardly knows her, and describes him to her co-prisoners as a “silly boy,” she is also intrigued by him and, possibly a little bit enamored of his attentions. When she cannot obtain her desired passport to Argentina, she agrees to marry, conveniently freeing herself from imprisonment as well.

      Antonio is nearly all heat, passionately in love with the woman he has amazingly won over; while Karin, despite the heat of the sun, continues to complain of being cold. Indeed, we sense from the beginning, that despite her radiant beauty, there is something frozen within, and ultimately we are indirectly told that, throughout the war, she has been the mistress of a Nazi officer. Yet Rossellini’s camera so languidly lingers over her body that we can only imagine that she desires to be a changed woman, despite the flicker of desire we see in her eyes upon meeting another young man on his way to Stromboli to work as the lighthouse keeper (the nickname of Stromboli, interestingly enough, is “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.”)

      Just what I have described is the way Rossellini’s film works. We are told very little except through the images of nature, architecture, and individuals. We must read between the lines, imagine the characters inner lives and how the world they inhabit affects them. One might, in fact, describe this film as a conversation with nature, not only natural forms (rocks, mountains, cacti, fish, rabbits, etc—all extremely important in this work), but with the nature of people and things, the shape and structure of the island’s village, the behavior of its inhabitants. That is why it is so important, it seems to me, to watch the original Italian version as opposed to the American cut. For in Stromboli, terra di dio, the audience encounters the island at the same moment that Karin does, all of which is more than a bit of a shock.

      First of all, as I have mentioned, there is the simple edifice of the pile of black lava, and the fact that after having been pummeled for years by the airborne missiles from the volcano, there is hardly anyone left; a few children, the cries of a baby become the only signs, it appears, of a populace. The small town of white painted blocks of houses crawls up a hill in a maze of small walking paths, many of them closed to entrance or exit. The outer and inner walls of these buildings are filled with pock marks where recent eruptions have left their impression. The home Antonio proudly displays to his new bride has been stripped of all furniture. Numerous nearby homes are empty, the occupants having moved away to Australia, the US, South America! The only “views,” are those of the ocean, but as Antonio swings open a wooden window to savor the sea below, Karin can only turn away in what we have to perceive as utter horror. The cut of her hair, the brightness of her skin, the gait of her walk, the poise of her body, even the pattern of her clothing seem to clash with the architecture and landscape. Soon after she is shunned by the island women for not appearing like them, for being—by her look and very nature—an “immodest” being. If Bergman is often seen clutching her stomach, as she does increasingly through the film, it is because she is viscerally ill by the new world to which she has unintentionally committed herself. Stromboli, as we so discern, as she temporarily rushes to escape the maze into which she has fallen, is a prison worse than the one from which she has just been released.

      Despite all of these clear barriers between then, both the experienced woman and the simple boy (as the local priest describes Antonio) do seem to love one another and attempt to accommodate each other the best they can. Although he has hardly any money, and has returned too late in the season to get a good fishing venue, he hires workers to repair the holes in the wall, filling the house the furniture stored elsewhere. She paints flowers upon the walls, has curtains sewn, chairs cut down, plants in-door cacti, removes family portraits and hideous cabinets. Antonio joins the other men of the island on fishing jaunts, joyously returning home with a net of large Bonito fish, which they will sell at a nearby market.

       Yet she is like a towering Gulliver in land of Lilliputians. Her entire body, every gesture shouts out a demand for change in a world that lives through its traditions. The woman whom she asked to sew the curtains is seen as a prostitute in this world, and Karin’s very appearance in his house puts her reputation in danger, as local men gather outside the widow to spot the northern beauty. Unlike the other women, dressed all in black, Karin goes about in beautifully patterned frocks. The stranger approaches children, at moments even seeming to threaten or abuse them to get them to talk. She bathes publicly, wades out with young boys to help then catch octopi. She even flirts, perhaps out of habit, with the local priest. “With me, God has ‘never’ been very merciful,” she somewhat blasphemously boasts. Antonio is clearly dissatisfied by her domestic alterations. Karin discovers herself utterly alone. For Karin the Stromboli might as well be abandoned, might as well be the moon.

        If we feel great sympathy for her in most of these events, we also recognize Karin’s failures to assimilate herself to her new world. When her husband purchases a ferret to help him catch rabbits—a local dietary treat—she reacts with horror, characterizing his acts as brutal. In what has surely to be one of the greatest scenes, outside of the films Robert Flaherty, of a documentary-like presentation of how the local natives survive in their world, Rossellini puts his heroine at the edge of a dizzying netting of a school of giant tuna, mercilessly brought to boat with huge iron claws and clamps, a horribly fascinating scene that provokes real terror in both Karin and the viewer, at least in my case (I had just finished a tuna sandwich). The treatment of animals in hunter and even farming cultures is never a pretty thing to watch. These fish represent the men’s major livelihood, and they cannot permit the leviathans to escape.     

      Another volcanic eruption forces all the villagers from their houses and into boats where they wait out, through the night, the most brutal force of nature of yet. Singing through the night, the villagers reassure themselves against the vengeance of the gods. 

      Although Karin attempts to remain calm through the horrendous event, she soon psychologically breaks down, determined suddenly to find a way out. Her reaction, in turn, is met by further violence from Antonio as he locks her into their house, nailing the front door shut, an imprisonment that has, finally, become a true rape—in the real meaning of that word: he has truly now seized and carried her away by force.

       The passing lighthouse worker saves her, and with him she now plots her escape through the other end of the island. But in order to reach the small village of Ginostra, she must climb the mountain, passing by the volcano’s crater. Her long voyage up the mountainside, suitcase in hand, symbolically represents a mythological journey through hell. This time, as she clutches her stomach, we recognize it as the pangs of childbirth (she has already announced to Antonio that she is pregnant). The sulphurous belches of the Sciara del Fuoco (“Stream of Fire”) sicken her in their stench and poisoned air, and she is forced to drop the suitcase, representing everything she owns and has been, and proceed without, soon unable to go any further. Fallen, prepared to die, Karin ultimately has a vision, signified by the stars of the night-time sky. We cannot know what that vision is, whether it be a religious vision, a sudden comprehension of what her life is or should be, a self-forgiveness of her own reprehensible past, a new commitment to her husband and future child—or all of these. Rossellini now merely asks questions, forcing us to determine our own meanings rather than telling us what will happen with the machinations of plot. Unlike the Italian edition, the American version makes it quite clear that she will return to her husband. But in Stromboli, terra di dio, we do not know whether or not the “Land of God” for Karin will at last be merciful or punish her, once more, for her attempted retreat from the engagement with nature she has promised through her marriage vows.

      Personally, I can only hope as Karin may learn to adapt to this strange new world, that the natives of that world might be enlightened by her intelligence and beauty, both sharing in their instinct for survival. If she returns, surely all may perceive that it is no longer an abandoned island.

Los Angeles, October 9, 2013

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