Monday, September 23, 2013

Merciful God

The last time The Criterion Collection cast their gaze towards the films of Robert Rossellini, they wound up releasing Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy, a set of films the director made during, and shortly after, as well as about,World War II.  Two of those films, Paisan and Rome, Open City, directly led to, well, quite a lot, actually, but specifically to the films that comprise Criterion's new Rossellini set, which bears the unwieldy yet certainly accurate title 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman.  In the extensive booklet that comes with this set is included a brief correspondence between Bergman and Rossellini, Bergman's letter charmingly praising Paisan and Rome, Open City and listing her linguistic ups and downs ("If you need a Swedish actress who speaks very good English, not very understandable in French...") as a sort of resume in case he ever might consider casting her in something.  Rossellini's excited response was delayed, he writes, "because I wanted to make sure what I was going to propose to you."  What he goes on to propose to her is the premise behind the first film they would make together, Stromboli.  They would end up making five films together, and I'd sure like to know why the final two, Joan of Arc at the Stake and Fear, weren't included here, but we can't have everything in this life.  It sounds to me, though, like several dominant themes to be found in the films we do have in this new Criterion set -- Stromboli, Europe '51, and Journey to Italy -- such as the dissolution of marriage, sainthood, and grace, are likely to be unevenly scattered among those two as well.  Maybe not so much dissolution of marriage in Joan of Arc at the Stake, though.

In any case, 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman is nothing to sneeze at.  Plus the films included do share one thematic tie that those later films can't boast, which is "Italy."  I sound glib there, but it's something that joins these movies, and it's anything but inconsequential.  Anyway, enough of this:  the films, now, in ascending order of preference:
Journey to Italy - Of course, one of the things that Ingrid Bergman's appreciation for Rossellini's films brought about, in a very indirect sort of way, was her love affair with the director, which began while she was married to Peter Aron Lindstrom and Rossellini was married to Marcella De Marchis.  I bring this up not to traffic in sixty-year-old gossip, but to note that this bit of movie history is hard to not think about while watching any of these three films, and especially Bergman and Rossellini's third film together, Journey to Italy.  Made in 1954 and long considered one of Rossellini's signature masterpieces, Journey to Italy stars Bergman and George Sanders as a married couple who are taking a trip to Napoli after the death of Bergman's uncle, to check out, enjoy, and eventually sell a small villa she's inherited.  Very quickly -- right around the beginning of the film, in fact -- they both almost simultaneously realize that this trip is the first time they've really been alone together and the result of that intimacy is near total indifference.

So the couple drift from lazing around their property, drinking wine and napping in the afternoon, to separating and doing their own thing.  Sander's Alex goes to parties and smiles hopefully at young women, and Bergman's Katherine goes to museums to marvel at Ancient Roman sculpture, and figuratively travels even further back in time as she tours smoldering volcanic plains, inspired by the memory of an old, supposedly platonic, if only in the physical sense, departed friend.

Journey to Italy is a quietly complex piece of work as it contrasts Alex's more traditional rebellion, melancholy as it is, with Katherine's existential disappearance into time.  It's not just the past as the past that awes her, it's how the idea of the past relates to the reality of her standing before its ruins, and how her standing before those ruins relates to her husband out there doing God only knows what.  Death haunts the film, as you'd imagine given where Katherine spends her time, but in an interview included in the aforementioned booklet Rossellini scoffs at an idea expressed in the film that Italy is "a country of death."  And indeed death as it's represented in the film is, while unavoidably morbid, can be seen as a step along a path, and its remains as instructive, but not in a "don't touch that or you'll die!" kind of way.  When Alex and Katherine visit Pompeii towards the end, what they witness being uncovered by archaeologists is not a horror, though Katherine flees from it.  It could even be hopeful.  Then again, Rossellini rejects that notion, as well.  But if one day a volcanic eruption were to baked Alex and Katherine into their home, future archaeologists and tourists could take from them a certain comfort.
Europe '51 - A stylistic choice Rossellini employs in Journey to Italy that doesn't sit well with me, and never has if you must know the truth, is putting Katherine alone in a car, speaking her thoughts aloud.  As I say, I've never much liked this, not least because it kind of sends the actor in question with the monologue up the creek, because it's often without context in the sense that it doesn't branch off naturally from another scene, as a stage monologue frequently does.  Even more bluntly classical, though in a different mode, is Rossellini and Bergman's second film together, Europe '51 (from 1952, naturally).  Rossellini described this as a companion to his earlier film The Flowers of St. Francis, with the saint in this case being Bergman's wealthy Irene.  Believing herself a kind and giving mother to her son Michel (Sandro Franchina), Irene lives a social life with her husband George (Alexander Knox) that she believes is both busy and important enough to giver less and less of herself to the young boy.  After a terrible fall that may, horrifyingly, have been a suicide attempt, Irene listens to her bed-ridden son recall the warmth and love of their earlier days together as post-war refugees.  Shattered by this, and all but destroyed when Michel subsequently dies from his injuries, Irene slowly begins to shed the trappings of her comfortable life -- among the items and comforts shed is her husband -- as she slowly begins to notice Rome's downtrodden, and particularly its population of poor single mothers.

When I say Europe '51 is blunt, I mean it is in political terms; it's very much a classic social message film.  Typically in such films, at least the weaker ones, the good-hearted protagonist might as well be a saint, and it can stick in the craw to see a filmmaker's idea of the Moral Ideal spread across a movie screen telling us what we're not doing correctly.  In the case of Irene, however, Rossellini and Bergman haven't created some grotesque Christian cipher, but a real, beat up, and suffering person, whose Christian characteristics are found as much in her flaws as in anything else.  There's even something of the Passion about Europe '51, and in going that far, a film will have a hard time being subtle about it, subtlety being a frequently overrated quality anyway.  And while the middle section of the film, which finds Irene bouncing around Rome helping people (including a pre-La Strada Giuletta Masina) who badly need somebody to lend a hand, is the film at its weakest, it is, of course, that chunk that gives the strong beginning and powerful, almost Bressonian (in some ways, but I don't want to go nuts with that comparison) final stretch the context they need to work.  The kind of bluntness, found mostly in the script by Sandro De Feo, Mario Pannunzio, Ivo Perilli, and Brunello Randi, used to dramatize Irene's eye-opening shouldn't be lightly dismissed on the grounds that it's unsubtle.  I mean, it is, but in a way it's unsubtle in the way brick and mortar is, while the beauty of the architecture is found in the tragedy of the beginning, the grace of the end, and in Bergman's powerful work throughout.
Stromboli - My favorite of these three films is this one, Bergman and Rossellini's first collaboration, from 1950. Stromboli is kind of a combination of the strange complexities of Journey to Italy with the religious awakening through suffering of Europe '51.  It also contains a stunning performance from Bergman as Karin, a refugee we first meet in a prisoner of war camp as Allied forces after a new government have come in and are trying to clean out the camp and send the many prisoners from all across Europe to, if not their homes, a suitable, or anyway workable, substitute.  Because her documents and finances are not quite in order, Irene can't return home to Lithuania, but this stings less than it might as she has fallen in love with another POW, a fisherman named Antonio (Mario Vitale) who comes from a small fishing village on the Sicilian island of Stromboli.  The two marry, and Antonio takes Karin home with him.

Trouble begins almost immediately, because Karin was evidently accustomed to a life that was a bit more glamorous than would even be conceivable on the desolate, volcanic Stromboli.  To Karin, the home she shares with Antonio would pass for abandoned anywhere else, but Antonio has apparently lived their for years.  She berates Antonio for not having enough money, for dragging her here, for ruining her life.  Indeed, in the early going Karin is enormously unlikable, but she's not just some shrewish stick figure.  For one thing, Stromboli manages to ask, without actually asking, an audience who at least is able to see movies on a movie screen, a luxury alien to the citizens of Stromboli, the question "Well?  How do you think you'd like it?"  Plus Karin doesn't walk around spitting or sneering at the other villagers -- it's not a matter of her feeling superior to anyone, exactly, but a matter of her simply not being able to take it, and knowing from the beginning that she can't.

But she's still tough to like a lot of the time, as her bitterness and paranoia, fueled by her outsider status, deepen.  At one point she's walking along with the village priest (Renzo Cesana) and as they are about to pass one particular doorway, a woman ducks out to throw a bowl of dirty water into the dirt.  Some of the water apparently splashes Karin, and she asks the priest "Why would she do that to me?"  It never occurs to her that the woman couldn't have known Karin was approaching, and simply needed to get rid of the water.  The island is a place of such psychological menace that she's incapable of thinking of herself as something other than a target.

Stromboli is brutal, though, both physically and spiritually.  The casual killing of a helpless rabbit sickens and enrages Karin (I didn't care for it myself), the taunting of Antonio by other villagers leads him to beat her, and Karin even learns that periodically the entire village must take boats out to see in case the boiling over of the volcano should jump to a full-on eruption.  "See?" Antonio says as they return.  "Our house is fine."  Okay great.  Karin eventually breaks, and her actions following that break are ignoble, courageous, and hopeless, her stumbling journey across a blasted wasteland filled with a religious fervor that has about it a uniquely, even medieval texture that you don't often find...well, now you never find it, and well there you go, there's Bresson creeping in again (or there's Rossellini creeping into Bresson, as the French master's major work in this vein wouldn't begin for another year).  For her part, Bergman, as far as I can tell, is giving one of the performances of her career, and especially in the final minutes seems to be genuinely suffering.  Karin is an astonishing creation, deeply imagined and thoroughly empathized with, unlikable and selfish, by the end surrounded by smoke and screaming for mercy.

No comments: