How did Italian cinema manage to become so big when from Rossellini to Visconti and from Antonioni to Fellini, no one recorded sound with images? A simple answer: the language of Ovid and Virgil, Dante and Leopardi, spoke through the images.
–Jean-Luc Godard, Historie(s) du Cinéma
Is there another paragon of the cinema whose work, equally at the time of release and some thirty-five years after his death, has been so undervalued in the United States? After the early success of Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945), Roberto Rossellini’s slow descent from one of the main progenitors of neo-realism to pariah for an affair, a child, and a marriage with Ingrid Bergman (their films together mostly ignored), to a dramatic about-face in creating the austere history films that dominated the last ten years of his career and were even less viewed on this continent, is perhaps not only a reflection on the public’s morality or tastes, but owes as much to the artist’s philosophical beliefs—beliefs that were packed full of grand words holding pregnant and dismissible connotations like “humility” and “freedom,” only to be rubbed out and changed throughout his life, like a child suddenly running his hands through his toy-blocks, destroying one thing to build another.
A well-to-do, erudite ladies’ man, Rossellini, who had four wives and six children (one son, Romano, died at age nine, having a profound effect on his father’s themes), was such a changeable sphinx. Few directors gave as many interviews or wrote so much extra-literary material to films that themselves came to be bellicose, didactic, and more enamored of scientific theories than drama. Yet all the films—those of the neo-realist period, those more documentary, such as 1958’s India: Matri Bhumi (1958), and the later history films—were parables that reflected his own conflicted thoughts on the world and the purpose of humanity. Ideas first cemented by Italy’s defeat in the Second World War and the postwar reconstruction, but later informed by how science affected our place on the planet. Indeed, one of his last projects was a documentary about overpopulation produced by UNESCO for the United Nations.
1948’s Germany Year Zero (Germania, anno zero), the last of his War Trilogy, ends with a young German boy’s suicide prompted by a world rife with corruption and deception. The war itself was over, but humanity had a host of problems brought by mass death and displacement, with an estimated 70 million fatalities. Rossellini went on making films about people at their wit’s ends, and then, into his relentless creative life (ten films in eight mainly war-soaked years) entered, arguably, the most popular Hollywood actress of the time, Ingrid Bergman. She had sent him an admiring letter expressing her hope to make a film with him some day, and it was by a small miracle that he received it at all. There may be hyperbole to this claim, but when one sees the results of the first three films they made together, Stromboli (Stromboli terra di Dio, 1949), Europe ’51 (Europa, 1952), and Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, 1953) — there would be three more, but none as immense — one may well believe that the intervention of Bergman into his filmmaking career and life was indeed a divine one. With Bergman as star, the films should have been seen by many people—especially as they were the most famous Italian director’s first English language works. RKO studio financed and distributed the first of these using the scandal of the couple’s on-set affair as fodder to enhance the box-office, billing it as a smoldering passion-fest under the active volcano of Stromboli. Following denunciations by the Vatican and on the floor of the US Senate, the public scandal over couple’s affair overshadowed the work and the films failed with critics and audiences alike. But another miracle followed as all three pictures inspired the directors of the French Nouvelle Vague, an influence Rossellini summed up as owing to his simple methods:
[I]f I did make any contribution to what they have done, it was through stressing again and again that, above all, they should not regard cinema as something mystical. The cinema is a means of expression like any other. You should approach it as simply as you pick up a pen to write with. (1)
For years the three films have only been available through scratchy prints mostly located in Europe that were missing certain scenes Rossellini was forced to cut or that were dubbed without Ingrid Bergman’s voice—an essential sound element to the definitive editions, though they were all mostly post-synched. The Criterion Collection has now released the three films in a Blue-Ray box-set edition, including Stromboli and Europe ’51 in both their English and Italian versions. Europe ’51 alone had four versions that Criterion reviewed, finally using an English-language edition nine minutes shorter than the Italian. Amongst the wealth of extras on the box-set, an interview with film historian Elena Dagrada provides, amongst other reasons, a detailed insight on the censorship cuts imposed on the film.
Many of the DVD extras are devoted to the woman Rossellini was in love with and who carried their son, Robertino, during the filming of Stromboli and then twin girls, Isabella and Isotta, during the filming of Europe ’51. Bergman appears in archival footage of one kind or another, whether on the set with Rossellini or in photographs, home movie footage and documentaries. She is also fondly evoked in a new interview with her daughters Isabella and Isotta. Also included is a short film with Bergman titled The Chicken (1952) directed by Rossellini. And, of course, she is the ever-present focus of the three features, now restored to a quality that brings the works closer to the way Rossellini made them, closer to the source documenting their love (one of the few titles tossed onto Europe ’51 was The Greatest Love). For the first time in over sixty years spectators can see the love and artistry between the two.
Bergman wanted to make films on the order of Open City and Paisan (Paisà, 1946) and each of the first three films were produced with a minimal shooting script—the booklet to box-set includes a reprint of the original proposition Rossellini sent Bergman, detailing the general story of Stromboli. As he had used his lover and renowned actress Anna Magnani in the two short films that made up L’amore (1947-48), after her appearance in Open City, the experience of filming a woman he loved wasn’t foreign to Rossellini. As in the first part of L’amore, each of the films with Bergman is excruciating and never light-hearted, with a rigorous progression of scene and dialogue that displays the wiles of a major playwright, rather than Rossellini and his collaborators supposedly writing the dialogue the night before shooting in some cases. The struggle of love, a compromised action in the post-war world, is their subject, demonstrated in Stromboli by Karin leaving a displaced persons’ camp for another kind of imprisonment with the man she marries. In a 1954 Cahiers du cinéma interview reprinted in the DVD booklet, Rossellini says:
What I find most surprising, extraordinary, and moving in men is precisely that great actions and great events take place in the same way and with exactly the same resonance as normal everyday occurrences. I try to transcribe both with the same humility—there is a source of dramatic interest in that. (2)
The ensembles of Rossellini’s War Trilogy gave way to a figurehead, but more so a face, and even though the films were made over the course of four years, they capture Bergman’s visage and body changing, as she ages from Stromboli’s long-haired, sexual, plump-faced woman, to the broader role in Europe ’51 where the character Irene, now short-haired and more domestically bourgeois in her wardrobe, changes from a selfish woman to a selfless one, to finally another short-haired, but more embittered woman hiding behind sunglasses, while seeking out antiquities and nature that will eventually redeem her and her childless marriage in Journey to Italy.
Knowingly or not, Rossellini also comments on the fact of Bergman’s stardom, her beauty, and her place as an envoy of the Hollywood dream factory. Though a Swede, Bergman was of Hollywood breeding and, in some ways, symbolic of the liberators (allied forces), primarily the many Americans in Italy, as detailed in Paisan. All three of her characters have their class, their refinements, and their vanity to buffer them from what is more plebian. Far taller and far more fair skinned, the 5’9” Bergman can’t help but stand out. The people she comes into contact with—the poor who work and live in squalor, either on the island, in Rome, or in Naples, are happier than the rich foreigners that occupy Italy (in the two latter films the couples are American and British)—look up to her beauty, her differences, and her indifference, which causes her breakdowns in the first and third film, and her conversion in Europe ’51. Joy is hard won in Rossellini—there is more smiling and laughing in Flowers of St. Francis (Francesco giullare di Dio, 1950)—made between Stromboli and Europe ’51 — than both the War and Bergman trilogies combined, and for most of the nearly five hours of these later films, Bergman’s characters are angry, anxious, and annoyed. Even in Europe ’51 there are a few smiles (the most notable ones are when Bergman’s Irene helps a little girl climb a hill) because the character is turning away from her family and a life of worldly things. Perhaps Rossellini’s thesis is that a privileged woman can only learn how to be human by encountering those lower than her, who lead more simple, stable lives. One of the more direct indictments of these privileged characters comes from a townswoman in Stromboli who, after Karin wants to show off how she’s decorated her home to others, admonishes her for lacking in modesty.
Because of her looks and manners Karin is an outsider in the small village her possessive husband brings her to, as she implores the village priest that “You are the only man here who can understand me.” At the end, while newly pregnant, she tries to escape over the top of the recently erupted volcano. Yet, she can’t cross this literal and figurative hell of smoke and fumes. She falls to her knees and says, “I’ll finish it, but I haven’t the courage; I’m afraid!” As she cries into the night, Rossellini briefly shows the nighttime stars, and she goes to sleep on the volcano. The next morning—accompanied on the soundtrack by Rossellini’s brother Renzo’s atmospheric, near-Wagnerian music— there is a provocative shot of her waking with the background horizon mirroring her own curves.
It is a crystalline, thoroughly carnal vision of rebirth—a romantic image the obverse of nearly everything Rossellini ever filmed to that point—signaling some change in her mindset. Karin still fights herself as she walks back toward the village, but because of her night in nature, she knows it is she who must change her views on class and sexism, not the villagers. She brought herself into the situation and though she stops short when she sees the village again, saying “They are horrible,” and crying God’s name ten times after she sinks her head—she utters it with a broken desperation that could qualify as embarrassing in today’s cynical climate—she will return. This nakedness of expression is the cinematic equivalent of the oft-quoted last line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” poem, “You must change your life.”
In Europe ’51, the setting changes to Rome where the protagonist, Irene, is married to a wealthy American. She is a socialite, more concerned with parties than the needs of their anxious twelve-year-old son (or at least is tired of catering to them), and in response to his call for attention tells him in a tart Bergman splash of English, “You’ve got to stop being so spoiled, acting like little mama’s boy.” Nicholas soon falls down a stairwell, though it’s questionable whether it was a suicide attempt, and Irene seesaws between guilt and recrimination for his suffering. Incredibly he does die (and this is only the first twenty-five minutes), leaving her in a psychological coma, as she turns away from a programmatic husband and a shallow mother. Spurred by the politically-charged words of her cousin Andrea, she only finds value in helping the less fortunate, including the parents of a boy who can’t afford an operation to save him, a poor woman with a large brood, and a prostitute. This Bergman character reverses in a different way—in the face of loss, she retreats only from her myopic world, finding the strictures of society that contributed to her son’s death, including her own neuroses of keeping up appearances, foolish. Rossellini’s impetus for the character came from St. Francis of Assisi—the subject of St. Francis of the Flowers—and his idea of the saint returning to earth in the guise of an ordinary woman. Found to be a danger by the authorities after she helps a young radical flee, Irene is locked away in a sanitarium, where she decides to stay. The final close-up shot of her crying behind the bars of her second floor room, is a nod to Jeanne d’Arc and by association, Carl Dreyer and Falconetti’s landmark La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).
Cinematically, Europe ‘51 is a more moody film than the other two—a much more “interior one”, the critic James Quandt says in his learned visual essay on the trilogy—a statement qualified by the visual distortions Rossellini includes, like the Wellesian shot of the anonymous faces of neighbours in the circular stairway right after Nicholas’s fall or jump. The sanitarium scenes especially typify this, with unsettling point-of-view shots displaying both her view of her fellow patients and theirs of her when they first meet. Later, there is a striking close-up of Bergman coming to the aid of a woman who has tried to hang herself, as Irene then echoes her previous improvised lullaby to her son right before his death, saying to her: “You are not alone. Don’t worry. I’m with you. I’m with you. I’ll stay with you.”
This face doesn’t correspond to the face of Karin—that woman is mostly still torn by her ego. Because of her loss, Irene progresses into a transformative figure, a “saint” a in post-war world, exemplified by the most Christian line of the trilogy, voiced very pointedly to a priest sent to comfort her: “When you’re bound to nothing, you’re bound to everybody.” Irene’s face is tauter than Karin’s, less juvenile, with a fuller knowledge of life’s pain—the voice that comes out is even-tempered and wise. Her cheekbones are prominent in the more modulated, old Hollywood lighting scheme—a change from the abundance of natural light on Stromboli. The creases in her elegant neck are steps on the ladder to a face that has assumed a different power than stardom—a face that has flouted Hollywood’s tawdry ethics and grasped onto her husband’s philosophies, his losses, and his belief in something deeper for the world that he outlined thus:
I think man must enter the struggle, with a great deal of compassion for everybody—oneself, others—and a great deal of love, but also with utmost resolution. I am not speaking of an armed struggle. I am speaking of a struggle of ideas. One must have the courage to set oneself up as an example. I know it can be very embarrassing, and it requires a great effort. It is easier to forget everything… (3)
That net cast for something deeper extended even further just a year later with Viaggio in Italia, a title also given diverse translations, but now firmly monikered as Journey to Italy. Apart from the watershed Open City, the film has become Rossellini’s most admired, leading filmmaker and critic Jacques Rivette to say he “is no longer filming just his ideas…but the most everyday details of his life.” (4) For the first time Bergman plays against an actor (George Sanders, the epitome of a morose Englishman) who can stand up to her technically, with a greater pomposity and wanton cruelty, creating a marriage simmering in a stew of mutual resentments. The Joyces are alone with each other for one of the few times in their late-life marriage and, like all of the couples in these films, they are incompatible. Though their reconciliation at the end might be taken as proof they will go on to a new understanding, Rossellini took a more circumspect view:
The couple take refuge in each other in the same way that people cover themselves when they’re seen naked, grabbing a towel, drawing closer to the person with them, and covering themselves any old how. This is the meaning the finale was meant to have. (5)
Because of its length, 85 minutes, and the large amount of events that make up the film (each episode continually separates the couple), it moves much differently than the first two films—straying off the usual filmic ground because the drama is so incisive and fleet. Before one can get a handle on another zinger by Katherine or Alex, Rossellini pushes them into the next frame, where they are often psychically moving, whether by ascending or descending stairs, or driving in their car. In one of these scenes, Katherine drives around Naples, muttering at Alex who has left to go to Capri. First she is stopped by a funeral procession that gives her pause, then she looks at the locals, who are far from her station in life, but so near its solution. They move about, buying food, and selling wares or on their way too. She sees pregnant women, who have no time to take a few weeks off and live high while trying to sell a villa with a view of one the world’s most beautiful peninsulas, as the Joyces are. Katherine is ravaged by this encounter (only a minute and a half of film time) that heightens her emotions as much as those with the sculpture in the museum, the tour of the Cumaean Sybil, the smoke on the little Vesuvio, and the Pompeii excavations the couple sees together near the end. Meanwhile, her husband explores the women of the country but comes away rebuffed or revolted. These are real people, living their lives in front of her wet, anxious eyes, reminding her of all that is wrong with hers, as Rossellini, continually cuts back to larger close-ups.
Her mouth is rounded into shriveled flesh by a cool lipstick and a revulsion of her own life— wrinkles acting as ellipsis to the ends of her mouth that seem to double when she is shown later, full of anguish at almost certainly losing the pitiful man some part of her still loves.
The “journey” to the Italy of 1953 leaves this wealthy English couple headed for certain divorce just two minutes before the end, but in that cinematic eternity, a religious procession where Neopolitans ask for a miracle from San Gennaro blocks their car, making them leave its confines to be amongst all the classes of people, not just those in fancy restaurants and bars. The anxiety of separation, ironically created by a force other than themselves (the crowd running toward the priests), is what brings them together. It’s often been called a miracle ending, but what has come before, the saturation with Italy’s civilization, from its land, to its art and people, has made their ending up together as inevitable as the San Gennaro miracle revealed. The final shot of the film is not of the couple but of an anonymous member of a marching band in the background with faces of the townspeople walking by in the front. In this case the culture triumphs over individualism.
Bergman, though the lead actor, is never “the star” in the prescribed Hollywood way—the star would never be made so vulnerable, so broken, so crazy, or so ignoble. Rossellini took the conventions of the melodrama and pushed them to more biting and cruel ends, just as Tennessee Williams did around the same time with A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed by Elia Kazan in the same year as Europe ’51. Since Rossellini worked by different methods, with his cinematography shedding the traditions of neo-realism and coming into a more sweet embrace of the frame and gliding camera movement, his arrival at this type of enterprise is well beyond a chamber piece or even Kazan’s stalwart vision. His dialogue flows from the images (perhaps owing to settling on the visual spirit and then penciling in dialogue late in the process), rather than the image emptying so the dialogue and the actors can fill the frame.
His cinematography is born from compassion as well, with people presented without judgment, without a sedulous or overarching sensibility that tells one what side to take. All of the characters are greatly flawed—the neo-realist in him is only concerned with people who he can portray truthfully, even in their deceptions, and the full flavour of dramatic relations is on display, as Rivette remarked:
[H]e tried to get to the powers of this look: which may not be the most subtle, which is Renoir, or the most acute, which is Hitchcock, but is the most active; and the point is not that it is concerned with some transfiguration of appearances…but with their capture: a hunt for each and every moment, at each perilous moment a corporeal quest (and therefore a spiritual one; a quest for the spirit by the body), an incessant movement of seizure and pursuit which bestows on the images some indefinable quality at once of triumph and agitation: the very note, indeed, of conquest. (6)
The images aren’t so grand and architecturally pristine as those in Dreyer or Orson Welles, but are often more innocent and not as nudging—the tracking shots peacefully follow the characters, granting the viewer the space to come to his or her own conclusions about the on-screen angst. Is there a greater example of the “indefinable quality at once of triumph and agitation” Rivette spoke of than the penultimate shot of the film, when the couple walks away from Pompeii after the Joyces renew their calls to get divorced? Even though moments earlier Alex had comforted Katherine when seeing the casts of volcanically buried bodies at their moment of death, they again bicker during the circuitous walk (again, movement) through the ruins until they come to an open space by a row of Roman columns. Katherine says “Life is so short,” and Alex curtly replies, “That’s why one should make the most of it.” The camera starts to track with them as they speak these words and then stops to frame them in a space lined with the ancient architecture as they silently walk away, as the music of his brother Renzo swells on the soundtrack.
Perhaps here and in many other places, the simplest sentiments fit the simplest pictures. History, and in this case, the surviving antiquities, can engulf people and make them look at things in a way nothing else would. Can the space they take up truly contest the large and largely unvoiced emotions that circle so wide in our lives? Rossellini amplified his assent with such unrestricted images.
- “Rossellini Speaks to Aprà and Ponzi: 1963”, in Criterion Rossellini/Bergman DVD booklet, p. 75. Originally published in Filmcritica (April/May: 1965).
- “Rossellini Speaks to Rohmer and Truffaut: 1954”, in Criterion Rossellini/Bergman DVD booklet, p. 55. Originally published Cahiers du cinéma (37: 1954).
- Ibid., p.58
- Jacques Rivette, “Letter on Rossellini”, in Jim Hiller (Ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s–Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 196. Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma (46: 1955).
- “Rossellini Speaks to Aprà and Ponzi: 1963”, p. 68.
- Rivette, “Letter on Rossellini,” p.197.