In 1948, Ingrid Bergman, at the height of her fame—she was between Hitchcock pictures at the time, Notorious and Under Capricorn—wrote a fan letter to Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, expressing her admiration for Open City and Paisan and offering him her services as an actress. (“Also, we could combine our kickass DNA to create a future spokesmodel for Lancôme,” she could have added.) On its face, the suggestion was a bit absurd, as movie stars and neorealism are fundamentally antithetical. Nonetheless, Rossellini leapt at the chance, and they wound up making five films together, which were largely overshadowed for American audiences of the day by the scandalous news of their affair and subsequent marriage. Criterion has now collected the first three—Stromboli (1950), Europe ’51 (1952), and Journey To Italy (1954)— into an uneven box set, sandwiching one of their weaker efforts between two triumphs.
Stromboli serves as a bridge between their very different cinematic worlds, explicitly dropping Bergman, a figure of relative glamour, into a documentary-style portrait of the titular volcanic island. Her character, a Lithuanian refugee left homeless by World War II, agrees to marry a poor Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale) just to get the hell out of the internment camp, following failed attempts to secure a visa. She finds life on Stromboli even more hellish, however—and that’s long before she climbs up near the mouth of its volcano, choking on the fumes. There’s a certain amount of privileged whininess to be endured here (by design), but the film’s magnificence resides in its nearly abstract images of Bergman wandering its desolate locales, alienated by virtually everybody and everything she comes across. The finale, in particular, features one of the all-time great cries to God and/or the void; one cut of Stromboli shown in America reportedly supplied an implicit answer, but both the English- and Italian-language versions included here are less consoling.
Shallow cynicism takes hold in the pointedly titled Europe ’51, which dramatizes the old saw about how if Jesus Christ appeared on Earth today he’d be tossed into an insane asylum. (Rossellini, who’d made The Flowers Of St. Francis two years earlier, had a modern-day equivalent of Francis Of Assisi in mind.) Again, Bergman plays an upper-class woman who descends into poverty, but this time she does so voluntarily, while reeling in the aftermath of her young son’s death (possibly a suicide). Suddenly consumed by an overwhelming feeling of love for humanity—which she confesses is tantamount to hatred for herself and her narcissistic life—she leaves her husband and devotes herself to helping the downtrodden, causing her family to have her committed. That reaction feels jerry-rigged, however, as Bergman repeatedly refuses to explain herself or even answer simple questions, like whether she’s having an affair. Were she as articulate and forthcoming as Jesus or St. Francis, society might meet her halfway; where the other two films in this set share an uneasy, mystical air, Europe ’51 plays like the demonstration of a preconceived thesis.
Thankfully, Journey To Italy brings the focus back to individuals and their environment. Referred to several times in the supplements (including by Martin Scorsese) as the film that “began modern cinema,” it stars Bergman and George Sanders as an unhappily married couple who spend a few days attempting to sell a villa they’ve just inherited near Naples. Constantly sniping at each other when together, they wind up spending most of their time in Italy apart, with Bergman touring various museums and ruins while Sanders investigates the local nightlife and chats up other women. That they’ll find each other again is a foregone conclusion, but their largely separate paths to that final clinch are marked less by personal revelation than by an accumulation of forces mysterious enough to resist easy summary or cheap psychology. Even the famous scene in which they witness the excavation of a couple who were buried in ash by Mount Vesuvius, which seems to have a fairly blatant cathartic function, gets immediately undermined, in a way that suggests that love and resentment have fused for these two people into something inextricable. Whether Journey To Italy inaugurated modern cinema is arguable (counter-arguments: Murnau, Welles), but it definitely served as the artistic culmination of one of the medium’s most unlikely collaborations.
Speaking of things that trigger the apocalypse, This Is The End, this summer’s comedy in which a bunch of young Hollywood actors (Seth Rogen, James Franco, Michael Cera) play exaggerated versions of themselves, is the most notable of this week’s new releases. Others include the animated caveman flick The Croods, featuring voice work by Nicolas Cage; the barely released thriller The Frozen Ground, featuring yet another blatantly cash-motivated career decision by Nicolas Cage (opposite John Cusack, who’s floundering enough lately to have a better excuse); and the Australian horror comedy 100 Bloody Acres, featuring… wait, there seems to be a mistake. Nicolas Cage is not in this picture. What gives?
Europe ’51: C+
Journey To Italy: A-