Ingrid Bergman the name without a face I knew for years, and often confused with famed director Ingmar Bergman. I believe her roles in the films of Roberto Rossellini (watched recently) have been my first experiences with her work. Actually, as I type this, I’m remembering that I saw Casablanca over a decade ago, and to be honest, all I remember is that I enjoyed Humphrey Bogart’s performance. With that said, her performances in the Italian Neorealism classics ‘Journey To Italy’ and ‘Stromboli’ were immensely enjoyable. Let’s talk about the latter.
Stromboli opens with Karin (Bergman), a Lithuanian, in an interment camp. Charmed by Antonio (Mario Vitale) an Italian ex-POW fishermen who proposes to her with promises of returning to his home island of Stromboli to start a life together. Their marriage secures her release and together, they voyage to the island. Upon arrival, Karin is met with the harsh reality of life on the island. The year is 1944 and throughout the preceding decade many of the island’s inhabitants have migrated elsewhere, seemingly leaving only the most staunchly conservative residents on the island. Much of the structures, including Antonio’s previous home, are in disarray and in need of serious renovation. And to add to all this, the two have only a few dozen lire between them.
Initially distressed and dismayed at her new life, Karin turns to an island priest with experience of the world outside of Stromboli, as a source of support. In time, Karin comes to embrace her surroundings. She renovates Antonio’s childhood home, attempts to make friends of her own, and regularly confers with the priest on marriage advice. Unfortunately, the island and its inhabitants are as resistant to her as she is to them. Many of the island women, especially the clergy, view Karin with disdain for her “lack of modesty.” They view her attempts remodeling her living room by painting floral displays and her friendliness with any male not her husband as an affront to their ways.
The story is told through the eyes of Karin, though we are often asked to reflect on Antonio’s dismay. Unlike Karin who was shuffled from camp to camp across Europe during the second world war, Antonio has only ever left the island to fight in the war. He is simple and young with no worldly desires. He settles back into the humble life of a fisherman immediately after his return. While courting Karin, he tells her that he knows what kind of woman she is, that he understands her. In the moment, this feels like the sweet naivety audiences are accustomed to in romantic pictures. These two have survived the largest war of the century, surely a happy marriage is attainable. The assumption may be damning. Antonio receives Karin’s woes and financial worries as a mark on his home and heritage. It is clear that Karin’s struggle to assimilate distresses him, though he struggles to understand why.
The second and third act feature extended scenes of animal struggle meant to mirror the hopelessness and disconnect in Karin and Antonio’s marriage. First, we see Antonio bring home a pet ferret in the hopes of using it to catch game like rabbits. Joyfully, he displays the ferret’s hunting prowess with a live rabbit. Karin looks on in horror at the helplessness of the rabbit, seeing something of herself in the creature’s plight, while Antonio cackles in delight. This scene, along with the big fishing haul near the film’s climax, serve to highlight the chasm between the lovers. Antonio celebrates the haul as it will not only feed the village, they can sell the excess fish on the mainland to support the village. Karin, again, sees herself in the fish’s plight.
Events escalate when Karin confirms she’s three months pregnant just hours before the island’s volcano erupts. The island inhabitants quickly rush to the boats and take to the sea for protection. Eventually, Karin and Antonio return to the island, though Karin has made up her mind. She tells Antonio that she can no longer bare life on the island, she is returning to the mainland. The film climaxes with Karin attempting to cross the island. Choosing to go up and over, she reaches the peak, stares down into the magma pit, and passes out in a fit of despair. She awakens with new resolve, vowing to God not to be defeated as she puts a hand to her belly. But by who? The island? Life?
Bergman’s performance was by far the most enjoyable part of this film. The fishing scene is extraordinary in that it is shot documentary style– those are real citizens of Stromboli and real fisherman. In fact, as per Neorealist style, most of the island’s inhabitants are not professional actors. The shot of the volcano’s eruption are dazzling and terrifying. Unfortunately, much of this movie dragged. While we understand the distance and aversion of the islands inhabitants have to Karin, we never get to know them. Rossellini writes them off quicker than Karin can. Also, Karin’s direction at the end of the film is vague.