In 1947, Ingrid Bergman dashed off an admiring letter to Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Inspired by his neorealist classics “Rome, Open City” and “Paisan,” she suggested he might use her multilingual talents. “I am ready to come and make a film with you,” she wrote, as though it were destined all along. To watch the fruit of their collaboration is to believe it was.
Together, Bergman and Rossellini produced a tabloid affair, a marriage, three children, and a trilogy of boldly emotional, quasi-experimental films about love among the ruins. “Stromboli” (1950) “Europe ’51” (1952), and “Voyage to Italy” (1954), available today in a lushly appointed boxed set from the Criterion Collection, bear the fingerprints of disaster: displaced persons’ camps, memories of air raid sirens, abandoned palazzos; volcanic eruptions, catacombs, skulls; collapsing marriages, dead children, communal scorn. “For some time I matured this idea of treating, after the war dramas, this postwar tragedy,” Rossellini noted in 1950, and he realized his ambition with aplomb. The films hang together as a brilliant, pained rendering of life, apres le deluge.
Yet the films are scenes from an artistic marriage, too, an energizing blend of the director’s evolving realist aesthetic and his star’s otherworldly elegance. Take “Stromboli,” featuring Bergman as Karin, a Lithuanian refugee who ends up hitched to a beautiful Italian soldier (Mario Vitale) and accompanies him home to the titular volcanic isle. Rossellini captures the village’s eroding, labyrinthine passages and annual tuna haul with the awe of a documentarian stumbling onto uncharted territory. Sunny and whitewashed, speckled with neglect, Stromboli is a place you can imagine wanting to return to, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that time has passed it by.
Karin hates it immediately, and finds herself thwarted in every attempt to make a go of it, or to escape. “This is a ghost town,” she complains. “I’m used to other things, better things.” Bergman’s eyes (downcast, flickering, narrowed, beseeching) convey every vagary of Karin’s tormented inner life, searching for an exit that doesn’t exist. For the woman whose personal history maps the distance from the Baltic to the Adriatic, through Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Italy, life on Stromboli is no seaside idyll but a sulfurous trap. Just “big black rocks, this desolation, that terror,” she says.
A woman’s struggle against the constraints of married life: this is the trilogy’s organizing principle, and Bergman is well equipped for the task. Like Ilsa Lund in “Casablanca” (1942) or Alicia Huberman in “Notorious” (1946), the women of the Italian trilogy are, in effect, modeled after Bergman herself — polyglot and cosmopolitan, impeccable adventuresses of global conflagration.
In “Europe ’51,” the woman is Irene, a Rome socialite who speaks of hosting a dinner party as though it were the Treaty of Potsdam, but fails to negotiate, or even to notice, her young son’s despondence. When he dies suddenly, she seeks solace in helping the less fortunate, a milieu in which Rossellini discovers a series of arresting juxtapositions. Indeed, the idea of Irene standing in a luxurious fur coat as a corpse is dredged from the river, or dwarfed by the spinning, screeching, roaring turbines of a local factory, proves so inconceivable to her husband that he has her committed. “It’s not always possible,” her doctor comments, “to know beforehand what a person obsessed with an idea will do.”
Neither “Stromboli” nor “Europe ’51” qualifies as either Rossellini’s or Bergman’s finest work. One can sense director and star working through the new forms and goals of “this postwar tragedy,” and both films come across as slightly ragged and over-worked. But the key elements of their shared genius are there: Rossellini’s neorealist hard edge goading Bergman into fresh registers of independence, Bergman’s fantasy of the exile prodding Rossellini toward melodrama. Their films together were not the product of “what Rossellini did for Bergman,” to use Richard Brody’s tendentious gloss in his introductory essay. What Bergman did for Rossellini in return was of equal importance.
When the two successfully converge — as in “Voyage to Italy,” which deserves consideration along with “Tokyo Story,” “The Earrings of Madame de…,” “Rear Window,” and “Pather Panchali” as a major work of early 1950s world cinema — the results are luminous.
As the film opens, the hot whistle of a freight train pierces the country air. Katherine (Bergman) and Alex (George Sanders), visiting from England to sell an inherited manse, speed toward Naples in their luxury sedan. In a few moments, cutting between the passing landscape and the quiet interior, Rossellini distills the to-and-fro aesthetic of the trilogy into a poetic vision of horse-drawn cart and modern machine, agricultural poverty and industrialized wealth, heedless husband and discontented wife. “This is the first time that we’ve been really alone ever since we were married,” she comments. “I don’t think you’re very happy when we’re alone.”
As slippery as a half-remembered argument, “Voyage to Italy” ingeniously refuses to make the same play for “substance” as its two predecessors, and in doing so achieves a light, uninterrupted command of the medium as impressive as it is rare. Indeed, at times the film seems composed wholly of echoes, reverberations of political and personal history expanding and dissolving like the voice of Katherine’s elderly tour guide in the catacombs of the ancient city.
When Rossellini and Bergman return to love among the ruins, this time at an archeological dig near Pompeii, the roughness of the trilogy’s experimental bent resolves into a coherent portrait of carrying on in the face of tragedy, and perhaps even beating it back. With Katherine and Alex looking on, the team supervising the site pours plaster and brushes away dirt, uncovering evidence of two bodies caught side by side in that ancient eruption, meeting death together. It sets Katherine crying. “Life is so short,” she tells Alex. “That’s why one should make the most of it,” he replies. Sometimes, when the deluge comes, there is no “after.”
“3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman” ($79.96) is available today on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.