“I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” – Romans 10:20 (taken from Isaiah)
Isabella Rosselini gave an interview where she posited her father was not so much a neorealist but a maker of “probable films.” In other words, they were built out of reality and its probable outcomes while never having the pretense of a true documentary. They were invented yet plausible.
Stromboli is not a type of food but a remote Sicilian island. Rossellini conceived the film thanks to two auspicious events. First, came the famed letter from Ingrid Bergman acknowledging her desire to work with the Italian filmmaker. Then, there was a drive from Rome to Naples past a refugee camp where a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman made eyes at all the passersby. I have no way to substantiate this anecdote, but it all seems to gel with the movie we have before us.
As in an earlier picture like Paisan, Rossellini is content to live in the linguistic ambiguities of the moment, and it makes for something striking and different. We’re constantly trying to make sense of the world and navigate it as if it were real life.
Ingrid Bergman’s part is shaded by her roles in Casablanca and Notorious just as Rossellini has the likes of Rome, Open City and Paisan behind him. The war years left such an impression on that entire generation and the cinema was equally marked.
She plays Karin, the aforementioned woman who woos the man on the other side of the barbed wire. They have little in common. They can hardly communicate with one another; she’s trying to get her Visa to immigrate to Argentina, and her secondary option is to marry this lovestruck P.O.W. It seems like she has no choice but to accept.
The foundation of their marriage is built on sand instead of hearty bedrock, but it’s hardly the only one you could imagine during the war years. A certain level of convenience outweighed many other cares. And so they set out on a life together back in his rural hometown.
Not only is Karin an obvious outsider, but she’s also unnerved by the new environment — it’s a humble fishing village — lorded over by an active volcano! What a strange and otherworldly film it is as we are whisked away with Bergman to a land that we do not know using a language that we do not speak. It’s at both times mesmerizing — a world full of curiosities — and perplexing.
Bergman notes it’s a “Ghost Island.” For Antonio (Mario Vitale), it’s all he’s ever known as home and so immediately we have a blatant disconnect. His wife tries to reach out and grab hold of anything reassuring.
It feels less like Rossellini is trying to shoehorn the film into English and more so that he is building a story out of what he has at his disposal. Where language comes in bits and pieces. Shared spaces must be navigated in ways where people can meet in the middle and English is the language of mediation. You never know who knows what or how they learned it. I had this experience on many occasions, and it never ceases to fascinate me. Isn’t it true so many people have intriguing histories if you only get to know them?
Stromboli showcases Bergman at her most disdainful, telling her husband how very different they are — born of separate classes — and she is a “civilized” person. Granted, most of her criticism is out of fear. Whether or not all the words are clear, he understands the emotions behind them, and they wound his pride as he looks to find work to eke by a living to support her. She spends her first days moping around the house and bawling her eyes out, always reacting to the circumstances around her. It’s rarely the other way around.
One man who becomes a kind of confidante is the local Father (Renzo Cesana) simply because he speaks English immaculately. He recounts to her how those who have gone away help those who have stayed behind. He’s an amicable figure, exhorting Karin to be patient.
But the relationship changes as she becomes more standoffish and unadorned in a way you would have never witnessed under the watchful eye of Classical Hollywood. And although she seems to find solace in his company, it crosses a line, and he becomes uneasy. He cannot provide the kind of comfort she requires even as she cries out, “”Your God won’t help!”
If it’s not entirely a movie about self-reflexivity, then at least you have the parallelism between real life and dramatized events. Rossellini and Bergman stirred controversy because although both were married, they set off on an affair together. It became the topic of scandal and derision across the U.S.
Similarly, the women of the town become scandalized by her immodesty in herself and perhaps her interior decorating. She hangs out with women of ill-repute and other men without the presence of her husband. It’s yet another injury to Ingrid’s image, both real and imagined.
But with the rougher edges of human drama, there’s something pensive and even gorgeous about all the fishing sequences. They loom some kind of unknown danger or foreboding. Maybe this is my own projection. Because like Bergman’s character, when I look at this life I see the perceived ugliness. There’s no better indication than the moment he shows her why he bought a ferret: so it might catch rabbits for them.
For her, this is violent and repulsive. For these people, it is their way of life and their individual comfort. It’s what they know most intimately. After all, didn’t God provide people the earth and the sea so they could seek sustenance from them?
The climactic moment when the fishermen bring up the nets has something so satisfying about it even as there is a kind of real thrill in the air pulsing through all the men on screen. Water spraying everywhere, yells, and hands busying themselves with spears to bring in their catch.
This is only topped by a volcanic eruption in full force. Bergman vs. a Volcano is not something I ever thought I’d see, and yet here it is. She flees and seeks refuge up in the hills, totally crushed by her own fear and doubt. And then in a moment, she wakes up and this desolate world around her almost feels like a visitation from God — the beauty — the mystery, it’s all there finally speaking to her.
Rosselini isn’t a deeply pious filmmaker; nor did he seem ardently religious, but in pictures like The Flowers of St. Francis and Stromboli, he does show a fascination with faith and humanity’s relationship with a God. Here it’s not so much meditative as it is a struggle. Karin, like Job before her, cries out to God in anguish on innumerable occasions.
Could it be the passing birds overhead are a reminder? That God through his common grace watches over the birds of the air and all the more so his other creatures. Or is this all wishful thinking with the volcanic deathtrap soon to be overtaken by hellfire and brimstone? Where is God and if He is there, why does He hide his face? These are the existential questions percolating in the human heart, and Karin feels the full brunt of their weight as she lashes out into the void.
The movie cuts out before we get a response. Going back to the opening quote, is this Rossellini reaching for an answer?
“I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” Of course, the director leads us to a state of existential dissonance between what we read and what we witness. Meanwhile, he alighted on a tumultuous road with his greatest muse.