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The Criterion Collection abounds in neglected film classics, among which are a number of genuinely transformative film experiences. Back in film school we were taught that Italian Neorealism and its credo of showing "life as it is lived" had tapped the most promising potential of film art. Roberto Rossellini was championed as the master of the form, but decent copies of his films were unavailable in quality film prints. His war trilogy Rome Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero had a dramatic effect on social consciousness filmmaking everywhere, especially in America. Industry folk that yearned to make film art were blown away by Rossellini's pictures, which often filmed on the fly, with non-actors in major roles. They were so honest and emotionally affecting that Hollywood pictures suddenly seemed infantile, irrelevant.
Rossellini's filmmaking career might have gone in a different direction had Ingrid Bergman not approached him with an offer to collaborate. She was frustrated by the Hollywood sausage factory and wanted to make films she thought important. Their work together was overshadowed by the tabloid scandal that erupted when Ingrid Bergman left her husband and child to be with Rossellini. The films exist in multiple versions, altered by various censors to remove much of the social comment that Rossellini had worked so hard to express. That Bergman's characters all seek spiritual meaning wasn't enough for the Italians, whose alterations removed doubt about the role of the Church in the quest for inner peace.
Rossellini's offense was in daring to fulfill the promise of Neorealism - reaching beyond life at the survival level. Built around inner conflicts, his dramas are not resolved by the intervention of external, dramatic climaxes. For most of us, Criterion's 3 Films By Roberto Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman will be the first opportunity to see these Rossellini-Bergman collaborations in versions close to his original cuts. As shown in the many extras, it's tempting to regard them as an autobiographical record of one of the most romantic love stories in 20th Century filmmaking.
With Ingrid's name to sell tickets, RKO helped bankroll Stromboli, which was filmed in two separate versions. The parallel with real life is fascinating. Unfamiliar with filmmaking outside of the big studios, Ingrid Bergman found herself filming in primitive conditions, with a man she'd barely met. Stromboli is about Karin (Bergman), a displaced Lithuanian so desperate to get out of a postwar refugee camp that she agrees to marry Antonio (Mario Vitale), a handsome Italian POW due for release. They travel by boat to his 'paradisical' island of Stromboli, which Karin is horrified to discover is little more than a barren rock under a live volcano that regularly spews forth a hail of hot stones. Most of the population has moved away, and the remainder is living in the 19th century. For walking alone and talking to men, Karin is ostracized as an immodest wanton. She can't communicate her feelings to the simple-minded Antonio. The local priest (Renzo Cesana) is sympathetic, but can offer no easy answers. Karin wants out, but how?
RKO re-cut and re-narrated its version of Stromboli in a vain effort to market it as a hot Italian romance. Rossellini's original (titled Stromboli terra di Dio) is a much more satisfying character study. Karin's impatience in the refugee camp hides secrets revealed only later -- she isn't a wholly innocent victim of circumstance, but more of a calculating survivor. When cornered, Karin tries to interest other men that might be able to help her.
Rossellini and his writers sketch a story in which people are not inherently noble. The God-fearing islanders are too primitive for Ingrid, and their oppressive customs crush her own better temperamenty. She's repulsed by the violence of Tuna fishing (she identifies with the entrapment of the huge fish) and horrified by a deadly eruption. She rejects God, yet when alone and desperate finds she needs something outside herself to believe in. The movie concludes with a deeply felt spiritual mystery. But it did not please the Italian censors, who required a less ambiguous affirmation of the traditional church.
In the name of commercialism, the dubbed American cut performed stupid changes, cutting scenes in half, adding a travelogue opening and imposing unwelcome narration at regular intervals. Rossellini's own Stromboli terra di Dio is a revelation.
Europe '51 has been the hardest of the three films to see; when Filmex tried to show it in 1974 they ended up screening a 16mm print of The Greatest Love, a clumsy dub job that removes references to labor strikes and abridges key dialogues between Ingrid Bergman's character and a priest. The extras stress an autobiographical connection between this film and Rossellini's previous Berlin Year Zero The director consciously addressed his feelings about the death of a beloved son.
Industrialist George (Alexander Knox) and his wife Irene (Bergman) host so many parties that their son feels neglected. During one party the son falls down the stairwell of their apartment, and after complications, dies. When Irene finally comes out of a deep depression, she gravitates toward her cousin Andrea (Ettore Giannini), a communist publisher. Irene leaps to help when Andrea mentions a poor family whose son needs expensive medicine. Irene is struck by the dreadful living conditions in the slums. She meets the penniless Passerotto (Giulietta Masina) in a shack by a river and helps her care for a large brood of ragged kids. Irene secures a factory job for Passerotto, and fills in for her for the first day. She's horrified by the factory's soul-crushing working conditions, which she sees as slavery. Irene then cares for a dying prostitute, earlier scorned by her neighbors. George and Irene's mother are concerned about Irene's unexplained absences from the house. George accuses her of having an affair with Andrea. Then Irene is picked up by the police for helping a juvenile delinquent to avoid a violent confrontation. Irene is so shocked by George's overreaction that she doesn't try to argue with him. She has no idea what's coming.
Europe '51 may be the most profoundly humanist of Rossellini's pictures, and the one most hurt by tampering. Criterion's Europa '51 cut is intact. A versions comparison allows us to see how passages were altered to eliminate controversial content. The English-language version skips over big sections of dialogue when Irene tries to voice her theory that one's love should reach beyond one's family or social group.
Irene isn't talking communism but the philosophy of St. Francis, the subject of an earlier Rossellini film. Francis did good works for their own sake and preached universal fellowship. Naysayers can argue that Irene won't get very far without her husband's money (when she probably has plenty of her own). Yet Irene looks perfectly willing to help care for babies, if that's all she can do. The message hasn't much good to say for social classes and the power of money: should a rich bourgeois try to truly help the needy poor, somebody will intervene to put a stop to it. Irene is too honest to assure her peers that they needn't be so concerned for her - she knows that her way of relating to the world has fundamentally changed. Her destiny is both moving and frightening.
Cameraman Aldo Tonti draws a strong visual contrast between the elegant Irene who drives a Jaguar and runs her home like an empress, and the later pilgrim striving to do good. Europe '51 dares to depict Irene reaching beyond her marriage, her doctors and even the church, all of which seem determined to keep her functioning within strict social guidelines.
In the end, even the Italian version was censored. An opening reference to a labor strike was removed. Rossellini included dialogue to the effect that the poor family's father is unemployable because he worked for Mussolini's all-Fascist railroad union. One of the cut versions removes this as well.
Ingrid Bergman is remarkable in these demanding parts. As the very flawed Karin and the transformed Irene, she shows character nuances unseen in her Hollywood pictures. Her 'mental illness' in Europe '51 is really a reaction to comprehending the world as it really is, with so many people suffering unnecessarily. The films must have given Bergman and Rossellini great personal satisfaction, even though they were not financially successful.
Roberto and Ingrid had a baby while making Stromboli, which precipitated another international storm of negative press. As America was in the middle of a vicious purge of political and social undesirables, one could read denunciations of the 'indecent, disgraceful' Bergman right next to condemnations of Charlie Chaplin or the latest blacklist victim. Neither Europe '51 nor their third collaboration Journey to Italy received much American distribution. A more conventional domestic story about a troubled married couple, Journey also encourages speculation of autobiographical connections. Once again Rossellini and Bergman lead a specific character to experience a profound spiritual shock.
Katherine and Alex (Bergman & George Sanders) drive to Naples to arrange the sale of a house Katherine has inherited. It turns out to be a relaxing villa between Naples and Pompeii, at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. But Katherine and Alex aren't happy at all -- alone for the first time after several years of marriage, they find that they have nothing to say to each other. Each thinks the other is playing a bitter, manipulative game. Alex won't go to museums with his wife. He decides to skip across to see some friends on Capri, including a woman that Katherine noticed expressing interest in him. Alone, Katherine is disturbed to find that the ancient statues in the museums seem to be saying something to her; the living volcanic ground under her feet seems unstable. Just when their marriage seems finished, Katherine experiences an emotionally terrifying vision in the dead city of Pompeii.
Journey to Italy's eventual American release title was Strangers. It has been described as a Michelangelo Antonioni-style glimpse into the existential void. The married couple is wealthy and accustomed to special treatment. Alex becomes impatient with a Neapolitan maid for not understanding English. Katherine hires museum guides, whose superficial jokes distract from her profound reaction to the ancient artworks. She finds herself having to ignore the lame patter of one, and put up with another who becomes too personal. She says that the sculptures convince her that ancient Italians were "people just like us".
The picture has its travelogue-like aspects -- In Naples we're intrigued to see a poster on the street promoting a communist candidate. The numbing personal emptiness Katherine feels as her marriage collapses is reflected in the dead ruins of an ancient city. All three pictures are about relationships that can't hold together. Journey to Italy is the only picture of the three to finish with a degree of hope, indicating that perhaps even Rossellini saw the need to try for a box office hit.
It's abundantly clear that Rossellini and Bergman were courageous artists, depicting the tangle of post-war inequities, and questioning the relevance of the Church. Bergman's characters are not Catholics, and don't apologize for it. One character dares to try to seduce a priest, while the meaningless rhetoric of another priest is only interested in maintaining the status quo. But all three films insist that individual spiritual breakthroughs are real. The movies are artistic studies of the problems of real, imperfect people, and Ingrid Bergman is a performing miracle.
Criterion's Blu-ray of 3 Films By Roberto Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman arranges the three features on four discs -- two versions of Stromboli, two of Europe '51 and the one official English language version of Journey to Italy. Stromboli was shot in two separate language versions, so both look rather good. The must-see Italian Europa '51 is somewhat degraded, but in generally good shape. Journey to Italy is clean and sharp.
Criterion's producer Kim Hendrickson has made sure that each disc comes with a fat selection of fine new extras. A fourth disc contains more. We have Rossellini's own film introductions for a 1963 French TV screening, plus docus on the filming of Stromboli (1998) and Journey to Italy (1953). Two more documentaries cover Rossellini's style (1992) and Bergman's life (1995). Italian critic Adriano Aprà contributes analytical video pieces. The many versions of Europe '51 are explained in a video essay by Elena Dagrada.
Journey to Italy's extras begin with a full commentary by Laura Mulvey, and continue with a 35-minute video piece with Rossellini's daughters Isabella and Ingrid. Martin Scorsese is at hand with an interview, and Tag Gallagher's video essay examines the stylistic progression in the three films. A second video essay by James Quandt concentrates on Journey.
The fourth disc has the two longer documentaries plus an interview with Rossellini's niece G. Fiorella Mariani, utilizing Ms. Bergman's home movies. Another short film by Guy Maddin with Isabella Rossellini is called My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005). Ingrid Bergman appears in a 1953 Rossellini short subject called The Chicken.
The fat insert booklet contains essays by Richard Brody, Dina Iordanova, Elena Dagrada, Fred Camper and Paul Thomas. Bergman and Rossellini's initial correspondence is reprinted -- the famous "Ti amo" letter and the response from Italy. Rossellini is interviewed at length in two separate articles. A lengthy explanation of the restoration process covers the way Criterion assembled the best possible versions of the films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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