Rossellini and melodrama

In addition to attending the Somerville Theatre’s Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective, I’ve been spending this summer catching up with various other films I’ve never seen before—everything from the four-hour political documentary The Hour of the Furnaces and Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900 to Le Cercle Rouge and The Hustler.  I just finished Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949), which, in addition to being a great film, is noteworthy for having occasioned Rossellini’s scandalous affair with Ingrid Bergman.  

Watching Stromboli, it’s impossible not to see the film as a distorted mirror of Bergman’s relationship with Rossellini.  She plays Karin, a Lithuanian refugee who, in the aftermath of WWII, hastily takes an Italian husband and returns with him to the remote island of the film’s title.  Karin soon finds herself poorly suited to the harshness of the place, which consists of a few crumbling houses situated between the rocky coast and an active volcano.  Her relationship with her husband, tenuous to begin with, quickly deteriorates.  Meanwhile, her vibrant and modern personality alienates her from the local women, who regard her as indecent: her attempts to be neighborly are met with cold stares.  In the film’s final scenes, riven by desperation, Karin prostrates herself before both the volcano and God.  She pleads for something that even she cannot name: she can only cry out “God!  God!” to a landscape and a sky that stare back at her as implacably as her neighbors do earlier in the film.  The film thematizes the conditions of Bergman and Rossellini’s affair: marital fidelity, crisis, impropriety and scandal, cosmopolitanism and provincialism.        

Stromboli is a superb melodrama.  Its melodramatic edge feels surprising given the film’s otherwise neo-realist feel.  Rossellini, of course, had helped to launch the movement known as Italian neo-realism, and Stromboli is itself rooted in that tradition.  The film was shot on location and blends narrative and documentary film styles delicately.  The volcanic eruption and the fishing sequences were unstaged, and a title card informs us that all of the locals are played by non-professionals.

What differentiates the film from something like Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948) is Rossellini’s grafting of a melodramatic plot onto a neo-realist environment and his casting a major Hollywood star as his lead actor.  While it’s possible to argue that Bergman’s star power doesn’t mesh with Rossellini’s neo-realist style, she effectively anchors the film and provides us with a crucial point of identification—something that La Terra Trema, for example, fatally lacks.  (Visconti would himself eventually abandon neo-realism proper for a brand of melodrama more flagrant and operatic than anything Rossellini would ever do.)  Other examples of films that manage to balance neo-realism and melodrama might include Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and the films of the Dardenne brothers.  Bergman’s presence in Stromboli is akin to Marion Cotillard’s in Two Days, One Night: it immediately works to make us care about her.  Such is the power of the star.   

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