Lost in the Movies: Stromboli


(Though already written before I was aware of the series, I am now submitting this as an entry in the For the Love of Films: Film Preservation Blog-a-Thon of Ferdy on Films & Self-Styled Siren. A full-fledged entry will be appearing on the Dancing Image on Sunday, the last day of the blog-a-thon. Stay tuned.)

Despite seeing many of his films, I've never really responded to Rossellini the way many cinephiles do. His holy simplicity has occasionally struck me as, well, just plain simple. Flowers of St. Francis (a blind buy on my part, and a satisfying one) is charming and Voyage in Italy compelling - though I wonder if Antonioni didn't eventually pick up Rossellini's ball and run further with it a few years later. Europa 51 I found embarrassing and remain rather mystified as to how its obviousness is supposed to be transcendent. Open City and Germany Year Zero are effective and absorbing but they're films I respected without being enthralled by. Neither one seemed to capture the lingering, simple, pure power of Bicycle Thieves (though both are overripe for revisiting, especially in the wake of the recent Criterion releases). Paisan was compelling in the abstract but I found its actuality too messy. Unlike Rossellini's acolytes (one recalls the zealous cineaste in Before the Revolution who admonishes the protagonist, "Remember, Rossellini is a god!") I was always unable to take the raggedness of his work in stride, to embrace it as not just a necessary evil but somehow fundamental to the work's appeal.

All of which is preface to my enthusiastic viewing of Stromboli. Rossellini's first film with his new (and newly controversial) wife Ingrid Bergman, it's bursting with energy, invention, and showmanship. The film ripples with rich tensions, between its desire to simply document village life and its allegorical overtones, between frustration with Bergman's spoiled character and sympathy with her own frustrations, between the melodramatic extremes (heightened by the literally incessant music which at one point pounded consistently for about half an hour!) and documentary naturalism. Certainly between Bergman's professionalism and glamor and the untrained "performances" of the nonactors in the movie - a healthy balance is struck here, with the real people convincingly inhabiting their characters and a terrific Bergman dialing down her polish while turning up her acting chops. The provincial folks and the Hollywood goddess gel remarkably well.

The centerpiece of the film perfectly demonstrates the subtle synthesis of Rossellini's artistry with his method of understated observation. A squad of fishermen are out at sea, as they are every day, but this time Bergman's character is out there with them to observe their activity. Slowly, as they pull in their nets, shapes begin to emerge beneath the watery surface, and then a chaotic explosion of whitewater and flailing fins. I had experienced this scene years ago, excerpted in Martin Scorsese's "My Voyage to Italy" and been blown away. Oddly enough, I couldn't quite remember why anymore. Now it came flooding back - these fish are gigantic! Their capture and seizure is brutal, violent, beautiful; the set piece is so strong that it overpowers everything else. Allegorical readings are possible but unnecessary - the forcefulness of the scene empowers the rest of the film rather than vice versa. The way a note will shift the "meaning" of a piece of music without our being able to articulate exactly why, so this sequence prepares the way for Bergman's journey across the volcano in the film's climax.

The ending is very abrupt, but of a piece with the movie's ragged, punchy, honestly intense and intensely honest effect. This is that rare and satisfying discovery - when an auteur's appeal becomes apparent not in a mitigation of their usual approaches but in taking these approaches to their extreme and making you see, in the burning light of their purity, what they were up to all along. The film is like its titular volcano, not exactly dormant, not exactly active, but rumbling, quaking, occasionally erupting in spurts - in short, living but limned in by all the limitations which usually encumber life though they need not extinguish its flame.

It occurs to me that, in speaking in abstract and vague terms about the movie's appeal, I may be doing it a disservice. Perhaps a better approach would be to tackle it in clear, precise, yet pungent language, language which mirrors the film's own aesthetic. This may be the case, yet having seen it about a month ago, I'm trying to recollect its fragments, like lava rocks in the wake of an explosion.

Anyway, see it if you can.

Donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

This review was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for the post. I've never responded strongly to Rosselini, either, but now I'm inspired to look for "Stromboli"

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks in turn, Joe. Glad I encouraged you ... hope you can find it! (I tracked it down at a Boston video store - I'm sure other cities probably have VHS copies floating around somewhere...)

Tinky said...

What a compelling description--and how bizarre that a work by an acknowledged master (even if I'm with you and Joe and about him in general) should be so hard to find. That's why we need more posts like this.

MovieMan0283 said...

I agree, and Rossellini's just the start of it! Hint: tune in tomorrow if you want to see what I mean...

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