Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Stromboli is a metaphor for itself. Although she was born in Europe, Ingrid Begman was perhaps the most glamorous Hollywood star of the 1940s. By the time Stromboli was made, Bergman was only 35 and had already had a string of successes, including two of the best movies ever made, the perfect Notorious and the incomparable Casablanca. Roberto Rossellini was equally accomplished, having finished his War Trilogy and perhaps single-handedly ushered in a new era in filmmaking. But the director's neo-realist style was practically defined in opposition to the Hollywood films that Bergman made; they were a supremely unlikely pairing.
This is reflected in the film - Rossellini's only Hollywood-backed feature. Bergman plays a Lithuanian refugee desperate to leave Europe for a better life in Argentina. When she is denied passage, she accepts a marriage proposal from a young Italian solider, who promises to take her back to his charming Italian island in the beautiful Mediterranean. The island turns out to be an active volcano, with only a few small villages with meager wages from fishing. The moment Bergman gets there she wants to leave.
Stromboli is about worlds colliding: the expectations of a young woman who dreams of something better for herself and the resigned but indignant fortitude of the peasants who populate a small and inhospitable bit of land far removed from the centers of society. But what shows up on screen is impossible to ignore - Bergman, looking just as strikingly beautiful as ever, standing in for all of Hollywood and everything shimmering and soaring within it, desperate to escape the neo-realist hell she has been unceremoniously plopped down into without any hope of escaping. It's this combination that makes the film so striking, in a way that the later collaboration between the two artists (and lovers) Voyage to Italy isn't at all. Bergman even acts the way you would expect Hollywood to act - don't get me wrong, this isn't Did You Hear About the Morgans?, but Bergman does sort of flop around petulantly, flinging her sexuality at whatever man she can find, desperate to use them to achieve her goals. Not that the neo-realists come off any better - Bergman's husband is abusive, while his fellow villagers couldn't be bothered to have empathy for puppy that was drowning if it was doing it in an improper way.
This parallel level of conflict, however, makes the movie even more compelling, and the battle between Hollywood and the Other is deeply felt in the film's final moments, which do more to point the way toward Antonioni's early 60s work than anything I've ever seen. Bergman's volcano epiphany lends her character more closure than Antonioni's protagonists, of course, something also true of the similarly proto-modernist Voyage to Italy, but the way Rossellini uses the landscape to mirror Bergman's internal struggle and ultimately merges her strife with the inevitability of nature is certainly a lead-in to Antonioni and similar European directors who would emerge from the neo-realist soil.
Stromboli also has brilliant moments that come unrelated to the oddness of Bergman's presence. The most notable is obviously the tuna fishing scene, which is simultaneously horrifying and mesmerizing. This one scene does more to explain the experience of living on the islands of the Mediterranean than maybe anything I've ever seen, and it's quintessential neo-realism. The difficulty of Bergman's character makes the film sometimes difficult to watch - even as someone who loves her more than maybe any other actress ever - but Rossellini's sure hand makes it a well-spent hour and a half at the movies.