Stromboli (1950) Roberto Rossellini

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Like her character, Karin in “Stromboli,” Ingrid Bergman found herself ostracized in real life from Hollywood and America after making this film with her director/lover Roberto Rossellini. Their affair and out of wed-lock child caused a scandal that found Bergman unable to find work in the United States for six years. In the film, Bergman is a Lithuanian refugee, released from an internment camp when she marries Antonio (Mario Vitali), an Italian and former prisoner of war. They go to live in his home in Stromboli, an almost deserted village located on a small volcanic island off the coast of southern Italy. Marriage and life in the poor village is far from what Karin envisioned for herself. Most locals who were born there have left. The ones who remain are a stoic group unwelcoming to strangers. Her attempts to brighten up their home by decorating are met with indifference from Antonio.

Stromboli2When she becomes friends with Mario, the good looking lighthouse attendant, Antonio, upon discovering their friendship, beats her and locks up her in their home. Convinced she can no longer take this life of isolation in the village she takes off toward the recently erupted volcano with thoughts of committing suicide.

“Stromboli’s” release in America was met with both barrels of a shotgun, one from the critics and the other, more damning from politicians, clergymen and the self righteous public. Banned in Georgia thanks to a state senate resolution, initiated by one Senator Lumford, banning all films starring Ingrid Bergman or made by Roberto Rossellini stating the couple were a danger to American society with their irresponsible life style. Senator Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado, condemned Bergman on the floor of the U.S. Senate attempting to push through a bill banning Bergman from America in order to protect Americans from the moral decay she and Rossellini posed.

Clergymen in the cities of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Memphis and the state of Indiana found Bergman and Rossellini’s conduct a symptom of moral corrosion. However, the biggest firepower came from the American Catholic Church criticizing Bergman for brazenly attacking the laws of God with cheap tawdry behavior masquerading as romance. The Boston Pilot declared, “The devil himself is at work.” In Europe, the Church was generally more tolerant condemning the “cannibalistic aggression” in America against Bergman. Surprisingly, the Legion of Decency rated the film acceptable issuing a statement that read, “It is our policy to judge the film itself, not the actors in it.”

StromboliThe critics were not much kinder. In New York City where the film opened in more than 100 theaters, New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers states…

“Let’s be quite blunt about it. The story is a commonplace affair, completely undistinguished by inventiveness or eloquence in details. A Czechoslovak woman, whom the handsome Miss Bergman plays, marries an Italian ex-soldier to escape from a displaced persons camp and goes to live with him, without love or interest, on Stromboli’s bleak volcanic isle.”

In an article printed in the New York Times the weekend after the film opened Crowthers wrote the following, “As to the artistic merit of “Stromboli,” that is easy to state. In this corner’s  estimation, it has absolutely none. As a matter of fact, it is dumbfounding that two people with such acknowledged gifts as Mr. Rossellini and Miss Bergman should have spent their talents to such an end.” This from a critic who also knocked Siodmak’s excellent film noir, THE KILLERS and most infamously, Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE which finally ended his stranglehold as the top critic at the Times.

Stromboli1Crowthers did get one thing correct, Stromboli’s bleak volcanic isle. He is practically wrong about everything else in his review from the “Czechoslovak” woman when Bergman’s character clearly states she’s from Lithuania to a story undistinguished by inventiveness. What Rossellini gives us here is a post war story of a woman who is in pursuit of a better life only to find herself isolated in a remote backward fishing village where women have little rights and are considered either Madonna’s or whores. Karin’s openness and general demeanor are alien to the closed society.

In the beginning the crowds came, but they quickly diminished and the film faded from the screens in cities where it was allowed to be shown. What the American public saw was a truncated version of Rossellini’s work. RKO, under Howard Hughes, cut the film to 81 minutes, from its original 107 minutes, for American distribution. Hughes apparently found the film dull slashing it and in the process making it a bastardized version. Rossellini was upset to say the least.

Most of the characters were locals and like all films from the neo-realist period this contributed to the film’s gritty desolate documentary mood. You can almost feel the volcanic ash (1) that covers the island or smell the fish in the exquisitely detailed deep fishing scenes, one of the highlights of the film. One can understand Karin’s depression; the island, the people are at the bottom of life’s food chain. Most seem to live day to day in their drudgery with little signs of happiness. The local priest just tells Karin she must accept her dismal life.

stromboli4“Stromboli” is not a masterpiece or even a satisfying film. It does drag in spots but it remains a fascinating document. Bergman is beautiful, maybe a little too beautiful for the role, standing out from the rest of the cast. There is one spectacular semi-erotic scene where she wades knee deep in the ocean, holding her dress up a bit exposing her legs, which is met with distain by locals who see her. In truth, it is a lovely scene beautifully as photographed by her director and over Roberto Rossellini.

Footnote:

(1)  While filming the volcano scenes the filmmakers had to climb up the volcano and live there with no plumbing or electricity.

Sources: Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman – Donald Spoto

As Time Goes By: The Life of Ingrid Bergman – Laurence Leamer

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14 comments on “Stromboli (1950) Roberto Rossellini

  1. Jon says:

    John,

    You summarize this film’s elements, both the good and the flawed very well. Also, you detail very well how the film was received. This is a very INTERESTING film. I’m not quite sure it’s a masterpiece, but it has had a way of getting under my skin. I’m actually working on a piece I would like to write on it as well. I will watch it again soon. I’m sure you are aware, but Rossellini is a TCM fixture this month. Each Friday they are playing his films, several of which I’ve never seen and some that are really hard to track down. I think Stromboli plays next week. This is a good opportunity for people to catch up on his work. Nice work John. Bergman is breathtaking in this film.

  2. John Greco says:

    Jon,

    I actually wrote this piece, the main body a while back and kind of let it lay there and finally came back to it this week realizng Rossellini’s films were being highlighted on TCM. I have only seen this and OPEN CITY ROME so I myself are looking forward to catching up on his work. Your right, STOMBOLI is scheduled fo next Friday at 8PM. Looking forward to your own piece!

  3. Thanks for the review and the heads up about this airing on TCM. I’ve always been curious about this film and I’ll have the DVR ready.

  4. Great review. I have not seen it and was aware of it only by its reputation. It’s good to read a fair assessment of the film itself, and I’m curious to watch it now.

  5. Sam Juliano says:

    John I agree it’s definitely a historical document rather than a particularly effective film. We both know Rossellini has produced some of the cinema’s greatest masterpieces, but a few of his films are less effective, this one included. I see Crowther as usual is off the mark. You have breathed life to this oft-neglected film with some fascinating information, and have written up a very fair assessment. The film is due to release a a few weeks on a Region 2 MoC blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam! Yeahm the film is fails to satisfy. You know it should be better but it never quite gets there.

  6. The Lady Eve says:

    John, Seems strange, but I haven’t seen “Stromboli” – yet. Will set the DVR for this Friday evening and see what I’ve been missing all these years. I AM familiar with the notoriety surrounding it, however. Interesting, isn’t it, how a scandal is often more memorable than the movie in question ( ‘Liz & Dick’ vs. “Cleopatra,” for example)?

    • John Greco says:

      Eve, So true, the scandal overshadows the movie which always seems to be unable to meet the level of the real life drama. When I was writing this article I started thinking that in today’s world no one would hardly even blink an eye!

  7. Penny says:

    I really enjoyed your piece on Stromboli…which I jusyt watched on TCM. I found it grim but somehow compelling. Thanks. Penny

  8. Judy says:

    As a fan of Ingrid Bergman, I’d like to see this – the BFI is bringing it out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK in June, so I will have it “on my list”!

  9. John Greco says:

    The film is more important, me thinks, as a historical document than as a great film which it is not. Rossellini has made better films ,as has Bergman, but still it keeps you interested.

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