DVD Review: 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman



Editor’s Notes:  3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman is now out on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.

The Criterion Collection recently released in a 3-DVD box set three of the five film collaborations of filmmaker Roberto Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman: Stromboli (1950), Europa ’51 (1952), and Viaggio in Italia/Journey to Italy (1954). These three films are sometimes referred to as the ‘Solitude’ trilogy or ‘Voyage’ trilogy. Both of these terms betray the general nature of Bergman’s characters in all three films, that is, a stranger and foreigner in a particular geography, whatever the circumstances may be. More specifically, these terms serve as a point of departure for what the films do with Bergman’s characters and geography: stage an encounter between body and land, or between two formations of living. The movement between body and land that takes place for all of Bergman’s characters across the three films opens an altogether different way of being in the world on an individual, collective, and even transcendental level. Consequently, with the exception of Journey to Italy, she finds herself on a distinct plane of isolation that paradoxically renders her more connected to both her sense of self and the world.

These three particular film collaborations of Rossellini and Bergman are utterly startling in their physical immediacy and emotional intensity, visually and thematically speaking, and so also open an altogether different conception of narrative, thought, and time in cinema. Arguably, they anticipate Guy Debord’s concept of ‘psychogeography,’ which he defined in 1955 as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ In truth, the encounter between body and land in these three films is but one encounter among several that they present. These films also stage an encounter between Rossellini’s camera and Bergman’s face that partly visualises the encounter between body and land. Camera, face, and terrain are the three different surfaces from which the physical and emotional aspects of the narrative take shape.

Put another way, camera, face, and terrain are the three fundamental components of this trilogy’s weaving a radical humanist attitude in a Europe that still had one foot in postwar mourning and another foot in postwar renewed economic growth and prosperity. In this regard, these three films also constitute another encounter in terms of visual style. They straddle the tail end and legacy of neorealism on one side and the emergence of modernist cinema on the other side, in a changing postwar Europe—in fact, registering such changes, however obliquely, which contribute to their force as separate titles and a trilogy. The neorealist documentary quality present in Stromboli gives way gradually to a more ‘studio’ look in Europa 51 and Journey to Italy. Yet the juxtaposition of Bergman’s flawless and highly expressive visage in polished studio-like lighting against the actual, rough-edged, and equally expressive spaces of Stromboli, Rome, and Naples/Pompeii provides a large part of the films’ emotional charge, constantly blurring as it does documentary and fiction, being and performance.

These films’ choreographed immediacy and concreteness of life marks a significant development in both neorealism and Rossellini’s cinema following the immediate postwar period of the second half of the 1940s. Rossellini moves from exteriority and survival of the self in the ‘War’ trilogy of Roma, città aperta/Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà/Paisan (1946), and Germania anno zero/Germany Year Zero (1948), to interiority and questioning of the self in this trilogy, from compact urgency and direct meaning to an unbuckling of time and meaning. As a result of departing from the strictly neorealist tendency of his ‘War’ trilogy, the films that constitute the ‘Solitude’ or ‘Voyage’ trilogy were sadly derided, rejected, and/or misunderstood upon their releases (especially Europa 51). Oftentimes, Rossellini and Bergman’s shared life overshadowed the work that they were creating against many difficulties. In revisiting such work through this box set, we come upon yet another kind of encounter that these films present, this time between spectators and films. Rossellini and Bergman offer, nay, challenge spectators to take that leap of faith (literally and figuratively speaking) to critically reflect upon what cinema and art have been and can be.



Rossellini and Bergman’s first collaboration tells of Karin, a Latvian refugee in an Italian internment camp. When she fails to obtain a visa to travel to Argentina to get out of the camp, she marries Antonio (Mario Vitale), an Italian who works as a guard at the camp, and moves with him to his home island of Stromboli. For Karin, she has unwittingly left one constricted space to enter into another by moving there. Ultimately, the film traces the clash of wills between Karin’s unyielding and volatile attitude to her living conditions and Stromboli’s own unyielding and volatile landscape.

Rossellini’s critical, cinematic eye lies precisely in pairing Stromboli’s desolate, rocky region with Bergman’s expressive face and body. We constantly see Bergman set against the unsettling space of Stromboli in long shots, medium shots, close-ups, pans, and tracking shots. Rossellini takes Bergman’s Bergman-ness (i.e. Hollywood actress, internationally renowned) as the point of departure for the film’s dramatic tension. In fact, when we first see Karin in the film, her face is lit in such a way that recalls Ilsa from Casablanca (1942). Bergman’s star aura-presence is so powerful that it contributes a substantial part of Karin’s allure, the intensity of her struggles, and Stromboli as a contrasting character unto itself.

Karin constantly feels her difference from the land and inhabitants, especially through the silent gazes of the villagers. She is difference personified, thus all of her actions also connote difference: her decoration of the house, her friendship with the seamstress, her flirtation with the lighthouse keeper and priest. ‘I want to get out,’ Karin says early after her arrival at Stromboli. But in a striking overhead shot of the village’s dirt pathways, she runs around as if in a maze, rendered helpless and unimaginative. Some of the film’s memorable scenes are, in fact, simply those of Karin feeling her way around the village, getting a sense of the space, encountering the villagers, in short, physically engaging with the concrete reality of the landscape and life, intermittently giving in to discover what it possesses instead of focusing on what it lacks.

In truth, Karin expresses the delicate, transitional moment between an immediate postwar Italy-Europe coming to grips with the end of the war and urgency of survival by any means, and a postwar Italy-Europe slowly recovering that requires a different order of attitude and temporal rhythm. All Karin had known was to fight to survive. Bereft of that wartime urgency, she does not know how else to live or think otherwise and applies her fighting spirit against Stromboli, Antonio, and the villagers. Matter-of-factly, they resist her by resuming their traditions and habits, as in the stunning tuna fishing sequence. For the villagers, life goes on in peacetime, in the midst of the volcano’s eruptions, and in the face of difference that is Karin. In contrast, Karin is stuck in a temporal loop: she regards Stromboli as merely a site through which she is briefly passing. She continually speaks of killing time and waiting, and so fails to acknowledge the kind of life that breathes in it.

But Rossellini continually merges Karin’s body with the landscape through several pans that begin by lingering over the rocks by the sea and end with Karin seated on or leaning against the rocks. Such shots anticipate the film’s emotional conclusion of Karin confronting the life-force that is Stromboli via the active volcano, and the life-force within her that she had not realised before, especially since she is with child by then. This delayed, direct encounter with the volcano, emblematic of all that she resents and seemingly lacks in her current life and space, is in one sense an encounter with herself and a changing, postwar world where a different kind of combating spirit is in order. When she becomes prostrate against the slope of the volcano, active and alive itself, Karin becomes once more embedded in the land, as she had been in the rocks along the water’s edge at diverse points in the film. But this time, the disconnect between mind and body has perhaps changed.

europa51sc2 Europa 51

In Rossellini’s favourite among his films, Bergman is an upper-class married woman Irene, whose kinetic energy already announces itself in the film’s opening sequence of an elderly couple walking along the street, across which her luxury car passes by. She is impervious to what surrounds her, intent only on getting home to get ready and host a dinner with friends. It is only when her son Michel suffers an accident that the pace of life as Irene knows it takes on a different hue and perspective, to allow for other priorities beyond her ego and class.

While set in the 1950s, the narrative is still very much shaped by the scar of World War II, registering that aforementioned delicate, transitional period between wartime’s pressure of fighting and peacetime’s recovery and reconciliation. At one point during Michel’s stay at a hospital, Irene lies beside him and speaks to him about their shared struggles and survival during the air-raids in England, and thus their closeness, with George the husband-father away on duty. Michel remarks directly that with the return of George in their lives, the mother-son relationship changed; they have lost something, together and individually. That unnameable loss ultimately encompasses Michel, and the once kinetic Irene becomes temporarily immobile with grief. The first shot of Irene following Michel’s death expresses that she has perhaps crossed a line that points to a changing mentality: an extreme close-up as she lies on her bed, her face unadorned and lit in what could be called saintly light. Literally shaken to the core in terms of her perspective of the world in which she lives and those with whom she lives in that world, she is unmoored.

The term ‘crossing a line’ is not used haphazardly, for it anticipates the safely guarded sociopolitical lines that Irene will cross and challenge in her existential unmooredness. In a series of wanderings in and engagement with the concrete world that lives outside the bubble comfort of her class, initially aided in her ‘slightly radical’ friend Andrea, Irene discovers a contrasting level of life in the same city in which she has been living: the sub-proletariat in tenement blocks. She aids families in need, experiences work in a factory in place of another, provides solace to a prostitute in her time of dying, among other things. Yet for all of Andrea’s talk of the nobility of work, Irene eventually rejects his vision upon experiencing firsthand its deafening degradation. What she does or want to do is ultimately beyond standard definitions of work, not to mention those of charity and religion. What she seeks is perhaps as unnameable as the loss experienced with and through her son. But by remaining unnamed, Irene is thus subject to the oppression of definition.

If (Cold War) ideologies and the class system are about taking sides-positions, defining them, and maintaining the lines that distinguish them from others, Irene becomes a radical figure to those who need to maintain these lines. Her newfound limitlessness continually refuses and challenges the lines that demarcate these sides-positions in the name of all. From the point of view of Irene’s family that is fearful of scandal and protective of their privilege, she has become limited and useless. Her behaviour makes sense to no one in her class, let alone to men who represent the pillars of science, law, and religion. To them, she exceeds (and thereby reveals) the limits of their thinking, and therefore becomes unclassifiable and potentially damaging to the comfort of their definitions. In a series of increasingly oppressive scenes at a mental institution where she is forced to undergo observation, psychiatrist, lawyer, and priest alike try to straitjacket her in an already identified model of behaviour. They ultimately ask the either-or that shaped postwar Italy: Communist or Catholic? She embraces neither side and so baffles them.

In contrast, from Irene’s (and Rossellini’s) point of view and those whom she befriends outside her class, home, and car, she has become limitless and productive. In a non-inflammatory, self-effacing, and extremely sensitive work centered on Bergman’s blank canvas of a face pregnant with emotion, Rossellini makes the simple gesture of understanding a profoundly radical act.


Journey to Italy

The opening sequence of Journey to Italy echoes the beginning of Europa 51: married couple Katherine (Bergman) and Alex (George Sanders) are on their way to Naples, ensconced in their car and equipped with northern preconceptions of southern Europe. Derogatory comments about Italians mark their conversation, making obvious that for them Naples (like Stromboli for Karin) is merely a place to visit, not to live—unlike Alex’s late uncle, whose house for sale prompts their visit in the first place. Small jabs at each other also mark their conversation and betray the discomfort of their marriage. In such an economical, terse way during their trajectory in the car, from day to night, countryside to city, being alone to surrounded by others, Rossellini brilliantly reveals the couple ensconced not only in their comfort but also in their dual misconceptions of themselves and Italy. The titular journey is thus two-fold, literal and figurative, wherein southern Italy pushes the couple to come out of their egotistical shells, as with Karin vis-à-vis Stromboli.

Significantly, the film’s opening dialogue exchange that takes place in the couple’s car on the way to Naples is about banal disorientation and unmooredness. Alex asks, ‘Where are we?’ Katherine replies, ‘Oh, I don’t know exactly.’ Yet unlike the immediacy of Irene’s response to her own unmooredness in Europa 51, Katherine and Alex take more time; for even in their discovery of each other as strangers they are practically indifferent, which is both chilling and compelling. In fact, the film’s astonishing modernist bent involves its complex representation of time through the lens of minutiae in this couple’s life as they go through southern Italy and their marriage in its past and present tenses. The couple’s lackluster reaction to the listing of locales that surround the uncle’s house upon their arrival expresses how they are emotionally and self-absorbingly detached from the land. As in their car, they ensconce themselves on the terrace, with Alex complaining about the food and the servants’ behaviour and both of them continuing their jabs at each other. Rossellini’s incisive attention can be mistaken for narrative uneventfulness, but it not only expresses the couple’s abrasive intimacy but also fleshes out the temporal senses of past, present, and timelessness that Katherine in particular will confront in her visits to historic sites.

The encounter between body and land across the trilogy implies the importance of vision, seeing, and spectatorship, and this importance surges above all here to give volume to time. Parallel to the couple’s frank, biting conversations about each other and their marriage whenever they find themselves alone, each subsequent conversation more volatile than the previous one (Bergman and Sanders have never been so deliciously caustic), are moments when one looks at the other: she sees him across the table speaking with a woman during a dinner at a restaurant, he sees her across the room speaking with admiring Italian men during a soiree. These moments anticipate their solitary looking ventures into Naples and Capri, her looking seemingly focused exclusively on death and embalmment (statues, catacombs, springs), his looking on life and ephemerality (younger women). But when Alex picks up a woman, she speaks to him of a friend who has died; and Katherine is constantly forced to confront the vibrancy of life (pregnant women walking and children playing in the streets) alongside the vibrancy of death and history. Even within the confines of her car, talking to herself in anger about Alex, the flow of life just outside the car in front of her manages to get her out of herself and perhaps consider something bigger. When their colleague insists that they visit the Pompeii excavations, Rossellini deftly translates their looking into the weight of past and present on their marriage: the two bodies excavated and the two bodies that look upon their excavation.

The film concludes as it begins, with Katherine and Alex ensconced in their car. But they are caught in the middle of a religious procession, which forces them to get out of their car and mingle with the concreteness and immediacy of it all, even if they do not understand it. In the end, their first exchange in the film no longer sounds so negative: not knowing where they are is an opportunity to start anew.

DVD Box Set Supplements

The abundant supplemental material in the box set provides complex and fascinating contextualisations for the trilogy, beginning with the Italian- and English-language versions of Stromboli and Europa 51; each one contains scenes and lines of dialogue not found in the other due to various sociopolitical reasons. Other supplemental highlights are the critical visual essays and discussions of either individual films or the trilogy by James Quandt, Elena Dagrada, Tag Gallagher, and Adriano Aprà. As these films do concern Rossellini and Bergman, who were not only film collaborators but also husband and wife, some of the interviews and documentary features included in the set provide a personal, familial tone, such as interviews with the couple’s twin daughters Ingrid and Isabella and with Rossellini’s niece G. Fiorella Mariani, which includes footage from Bergman’s home movies.


About Author

Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.