Directed and produced by Roberto Rossellini
Story by Roberto Rossellini with collaboration by Sergio Amiedi, G. P. Callegari, Art Cohn, and Renzo Cesana
Screenplay by Rossellini and Father Félix Morlión
Cinematography by Otello Martelli
Edited by Roland Gross (uncut version) and Alfred L. Werker (U.S. version)
Stromboli’s full title in Italian reads Stromboli, terra di Dio or Stromboli, Land of God. The complete title is crucial to understanding what Rossellini is trying to convey. The film goes beyond the concept of Italian neorealism, reaching for something larger and yet personal and intimate. Does it succeed?
Ingrid Bergman plays Karin, a Lithuanian woman who manages to escape an internment camp immediately after WWII by marrying an Italian fisherman named Antonio (Mario Vitale), an Italian soldier. Early in the film, Karin and Antonio speak through a barbed wire fence at the camp; he speaks little English, she speaks little Italian, but she knows he’s falling for her. One night Karin off-handedly confides to one of the women in the camp, “His English doesn’t make sense. He’s amusing enough. He’s just a boy.”
Willing to do anything to escape the camp, Karin marries Antonio, who takes her to his home on the island of Stromboli, a small island north of Sicily. Stromboli is also home to an active volcano and it’s not long before we’re placing bets on who will erupt first: the volcano or Karin. Karin immediately hates the island, thinking it far beneath her to live in such a backwards, desolate place filled with rocks, volcano ash and nothing to do all day. When she learns that several of the local villagers have spent significant time in America, she can’t understand why anyone would want to leave there to come to Stromboli. “It’s our home,” is always the answer. The locals weren’t too welcoming to begin with and Karin’s scornful attitude doesn’t exactly bring many visits from the Welcome Wagon. Antonio realizes his new bride is unhappy, but thinks she’ll come around, especially after he earns some money fishing and starts decorating and furnishing their house. “Soon everything will be like before,” Antonio promises. Karin replies, taking in the bare walls, “Before what?”
Without giving too much away, the religious themes in the film are significant if not critical to understanding the film, perhaps even more so than the obvious theme of isolation. Karin is in the midst of a conservative, religious people and when she goes to visit the local seamstress – a woman of questionable morals – the villagers dislike Antonio’s bride with even greater intensity. In more than one scene Karin shares her disdain of God, even remarking on one occasion that God has never done anything for her. In a tremendous scene involving local fishermen pulling an astounding number of tuna from the waters (using a technique called “tonnara”), Karin is disgusted when the fishermen thank Jesus and Mary for their good fortune. These events prepare us for the film’s ending, although I can’t decide whether Rossellini has given us too many religious references or not enough. For me, the script of the ending doesn’t quite work, yet visually it’s stunning.
Stromboli received mixed reviews for several reasons. The film was originally 107 minutes, but was cut to 81 minutes for American distribution through RKO. Bergman was actually the driving force behind American distribution. Without her influence, the film would probably never have seen the light of day in America, yet when Rossellini handed his film over to RKO, he lost any control over cuts for the American version. I’m not sure what was cut from the original, but it probably didn’t matter: American audiences were primarily upset over Bergman’s affair with Rossellini (while she was still married to Petter Aron Lindström) and her having a child with him out of wedlock.
This really stirred things up here in America. Bergman was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate as a “powerful influence for evil” by Colorado Senator Edwin C. Johnson. Ed Sullivan refused to have Bergman on his wildly popular TV show. I remember people still talking about the Bergman scandal over 25 years later when I started becoming interested in classic movies. (Although I’ll bet that didn’t keep people from watching Casablanca on cable TV.) Perhaps that didn’t jibe with the film’s ending. (Again, with all the cuts in the American version, I’m not sure how much of the original ending they actually saw. However much it was or wasn’t, it probably wasn’t enough to sway popular opinion in America.)
Not only was Stromboli cut by at least 25 minutes, but also Bergman was playing a very unlikable character in Karin – especially after American audiences remembered her as a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), a saint in Joan of Arc (1948), and many other “likable” roles. Put all these things together and it’s no wonder so many people (including critics) reacted negatively to the film.
I haven’t seen that many Rossellini films, but I have found that many people recommend Stromboli as a good starting point for watching the director’s body of work. You definitely get the impression that Rossellini was trying to do something different here, perhaps taking Italian neorealism in another direction, perhaps casting an established and recognizable actress in order to appeal to a larger audience. Again, this is speculation on my part. The end result is an often powerful film, yet one whose ending I couldn’t totally buy into. But try it and see what you think. If you’re a FilmStruck subscriber, you can find Stromboli there, but only until March 10. The film is also available as part of the Criterion box set 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman.
Photos: Kinnemaniac, Leonard Maltin’s Worst Ratings, Adam Mohrbacher