The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection Review
In 1948, Ingrid Bergman saw Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classics Rome, Open City and Paisà (both released on Blu-ray along with Germany Year Zero by the BFI as the Rossellini War Trilogy box set) in New York. Their impact on her was such that she wrote to the director: "If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French and who in Italian knows only 'Ti amo', I am ready to come and make a film with you." Rossellini had not heard of Bergman, but he remedied that by watching several of her major films to that date and he sent her the proposal for what was to become Stromboli.
The result of their collaboration was the beginning of an affair between director and actress, the acrimonious breakup of Rossellini's relationship with Anna Magnani (his star in Rome, Open City) and Bergman's pregnancy out of wedlock. Bergman's own marriage, to Petter Lindström, which had been shaky, also broke up. Bergman and Rossellini did marry, but this was never recognised by the Italian Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the scandal reached the United States, and Bergman became persona non grata in Hollywood for about half a decade. The couple had three children together, a son followed by twin girls (one of them being Isabella Rossellini, of which more later), and by the time their marriage had broken up, they had made five feature films together, three of which are included in this box set.
Stromboli Land of God (Stromboli Terra di Dio) (99:48)
The film begins in 1948 at a camp for displaced persons in Italy. Karin (Bergman) is an Italian-speaking Lithuanian. After unsuccessfully attempting to leave for Argentina, she marries Antonio (Mario Vitale) as her ticket out. He takes her to his home, the volcanic Sicilian island of Stromboli, but soon finds out that this is a mistake: her freedom is no freedom at all, compounded by the fact that she is now pregnant.
The island was hot and teeming with flies, with no running water or electricity. In addition, Rossellini's working methods came as a shock to his visiting Hollywood star, with no formal script, the rest of the cast being non-actors, their lines being given to them at the time of shooting with little or no rehearsal. The result is an uneasy blend of documentary-style neo-realism and melodrama, leading to an open ending designed to illustrate Rossellini's theme that, as per Simone Weil, "grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter when there is a void to receive it". That is the case with the extremity that Karin finds herself at the film's climax. RKO, who were financing the film, tried to capitalise on the scandal with its release, but the result was a critical and commercial bomb, re-edited down from nearly two hours to eighty-one minutes, with voiceover narration added and a more conventional happy ending tacked on. The version on this Blu-ray and DVD is the Italian-language one: more about the variant versions of Stromboli following "The Discs" below.
Bergman and Rossellini's second feature collaboration was Europa '51, released in 1952, and not included in this box set. In that year, she gave birth to the twins, Isabella and Isotta Rossellini. They began shooting Journey to Italy in February 1953.
Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (English version 86:08, Italian version 83:15)
Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine Joyce (Bergman) are a well-heeled couple on a car journey in Italy, prompted by plans to sell a house belonging to Alex's deceased Uncle Homer in Naples. As they travel, their marriage is beginning to fray...
Other than Bergman, George Sanders was the biggest name to appear in his film, the other characters played by amateurs, non-actors and friends of the director. With a timespan of seven days, Journey to Italy dispenses with plot in most conventional senses: it's a pure "miniplot" with the story progression being internal for both central characters, with the fictional elements bleeding in to documentary-like scenes of visits to museums, catacombs, volcanic mud pools and in a powerful sequence the creating of a plaster cast of a corpse from Vesuvius's destruction of Pompeii: a man and a woman, bound together in death. As this indicates, the film is far from random, and Katherine's reaction to this discovery shows that she fully realises what this signifies. This is a film where the past – the country's past, the characters' past – bears down heavily on the present.
Journey to Italy was a film ahead of its time. Critics for the most part dismissed it, and audiences stayed away. However, critics from Cahiers du cinéma championed the film, in particular two who were to go on to become filmmakers themselves. Eric Rohmer compared its inpact to that of the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Jacques Rivette claimed that the film opened a breach in cinema which all later films had to acknowledge. Certainly, in its de-emphasis of conventional plot mechanics and the use of landscape and architecture to comment on characters' emotional state it does look forward to Antonioni's work. In fact, this film's cinematographer, Enzo Sarafin, photgraphed three films for Antonioni in the early 1950s. Cahiers went on to name it the greatest film of all time. I'd certainly call it a great film, though certainly not one for everyone.
Fear (La paura/Angst) (82:50)
By the time they made Fear in 1954, Bergman and Rossellini's marriage was itself fraying. Based on a novella by Stefan Zweig, Fear was made in two versions, one German-language (Angst) and the present, somewhat different, international version in the English language – though the present transfer has credits in Italian, giving the title as La paura. Fear is a rather more conventional prospect than Journey into Fear, taking us into film noir territory. Irene Wagner (Bergman) is married to research scientist Albert (Mathias Wieman) and they have two children. However, Irene has been having an affair with Erich Baumann (Kurt Kreuger) and is being blackmailed about this by Erich's former lover Johanna (Renate Mannhardt). The film is more conventionally plotted, with a pure As You Know Bob scene were Albert's scientific work is explained to Irene – this science does pay off in the story later. Also, a subplot about Albert and Irene's daughter wanting an air rifle like her brother but being given a doll instead (so debates about gendered children's toys are nothing new) is resolved in a way which reflects on Irene's dilemma: the young girl is given a lecture on the importance of owning up to one's wrongdoing, which of course Irene cannot do. There's a plot twist around the hour mark which I won't reveal, and the film gradually backs Irene into a corner...with a not entirely convincing resolution.
However, Fear was as commercially and critically unsuccessful as the previous films. It was re-edited to give the film a happier ending, though the version on this disc is the original international version. Bergman and Rossellini's final feature together was Joan of Arc at the Stake, also released in 1954 and their only collaboration in colour, with Bergman returning to the role she had played under Victor Fleming's direction in 1948. Rossellini and Bergman separated and their marriage was annulled. Bergman played the title role in Elena et les hommes for Jean Renoir and then returned to Hollywood to make Anastasia. There was a sense that she was being welcomed home, cemented by the Best Actress Oscar that she won for the role.
The BFI's release of The Ingrid Bergman Roberto Rossellini Collection is a limited edition box set comprising three Blu-rays. The DVD versions are released as three separate discs.
Three different versions of Stromboli have been shown in the UK. As mentioned above, the original release was cut by RKO to 81 minutes, and this was released in the UK in 1950. However, a copy of the complete English-language version is held by the BBC, who first showed it in 1990 as part of BBC2's Film Club strand. I saw that showing, and have a recording from the last time BBC2 broadcast the film, in 2013. That version, with PAL speed-up, runs 101:55, corresponding to the usually quoted running time of 106 minutes. This version formed the basis of Second Sight's VHS release in 1998. The version on the present Blu-ray is an Italian version which runs 99:48 at 24fps, the running time including opening restoration captions. As for the language, the film was clearly shot without direct sound, which was par for the course for Italian cinema at the time. Bergman is evidently speaking her lines in English, Vitale and other cast members in Italian. In both versions, there are some other languages spoken in the early scenes at the displaced persons' camp, such as Spanish when Karin applies to leave for Argentina, which is intentionally left untranslated. In the English version, there are some brief lines of dialogue in untranslated Italian. In its defence, the Italian version makes sense given that Karin is meant to be an Italian-speaker and not an anglophone. Given that this set includes two versions of Journey to Italy, there would be a case for including the two versions of Stromboli.
There is another issue with Stromboli. The BBFC has cut twelve seconds from this film, for reasons of animal cruelty, illegal under the 1937 Cinematograph (Animals) Act. This material was cut from Second Sight's VHS release and may have comprised the cuts in the original cinema release (though I can't confirm that) though this scene is intact in the BBC's print. The scene is just under an hour in and involves Antonio releasing a ferret on a rabbit to kill it, to Karin's horror, and is clearly an important scene but is also clearly unfaked and so breaches British law.
Journey to Italy is presented in both English and Italian versions, the latter slightly shorter. Fear is presented in its international English-language version. As with Stromboli, the running times include restoration captions at the start.
All three films are presented in 1.33:1. While Stromboli precedes the widescreen era, as does Journey to Italy (though only just) and this ratio is correct for both, I'm not convinced that Academy Ratio is quite correct for Fear. There is a lot of headroom in almost every shot, which there is too in much of Journey to Italy, but what there also is in Fear are several camera readjustments which would be needed to keep people and objects within the bounds of the wider ratio which would not be needed if the film was intended to be shown in 4:3. The transfer of Journey to Italy (both versions) is highly contrasty, with blacks so deep as to be inky, especially in the nighttime scenes. While I can't be authoritative as to how the film is meant to look, with my only previous viewing being on television (also in BBC2's Film Club in 1990) I will mention that in her commentary Laura Mulvey refers to the soft lighting of Serafin's photography and that is not immediately apparent in this transfer. Stromboli looks quite bleached as well, though detail and grain are fine. I hadn't seen Fear before now, but in detail and greyscale it does look like I'd expect a black and white film from the 1950s to look, and grain seems natural and filmlike.
The soundttracks are LPCM 2.0 mono in all cases, and is clear and well-balanced given the limitations of the originals. They were post-synchronised, and in some cases it's clear that the language spoken by the actor is not that of soundtrack: not just in Stromboli as mentioned above, but with the German actors in Fear as well. English subtitles are optional. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the English version of Journey to Italy and for Fear and in the former case they also translate Italian dialogue otherwise left untranslated.
The extras on Disc 1, the Stromboli disc begin with Bergman and Magnani: The War of rhe Volcanoes (53:59). a 2012 documentary directed by Francesco Patierno. Using voiceover narration (in Italian with subtitles), extracts from the relevant films and some home-movie footage (in colour), this tells the story of the Magnani/Rossellini/Bergman triangle, which resulted in a distinctly unpleased Magnani making her own film from the same basic story (which had been promised to her originally), Vulcano, on the nearby island of that name. The film extracts here are particularly useful as while Stromboli was a flop, Magnani's film sank even further without trace.
The National Film Theatre (now the BFI Southbank) has hosted many interviews with filmmakers over the decades. In the early 1980s the BBC broadcast several of them (which I saw) and one of them, in 1981, was with Ingrid Bergman. The interviewer is John Russell Taylor and there are also questions from the audience. There is a clip from Stromboli shown – which illustrates how much restoration can do – though it's possible that other clips may have been edited out of the original broadcast for licensing reasons. Bergman shows herself a polished raconteur, with Taylor just the right side of fanboyishness. This item runs 37:07.
"Missing and Departed" (18:45) is a video essay by Tag Gallagher, which details the relationship between Bergman and Rossellini. Gallagher begins with Rossellini's urge to "confront death" (following the death of his young son) by "haunting the living", with examples from Germany Year Zero as well as the Bergman films, people who are trapped in their lives and trying to escape, sometimes by death. This is contrasted by images of life, the real lives taking place around them. There are plentiful extracts from the films the BFI has released on disc, though Europa '51, which they haven't, is represented by stills.
On to Disc Two, Journey to Italy, and on the English version of the film are two commentaries, both brought forward from previous disc releases: one by Laura Mulvey from 2003 and one from Adrian Martin from 2007. Of the two, Martin's is the more detailed, as there are longer pauses in Mulvey's. Both are good appreciations of the film, a favourite of Mulvey's in particular, both paying attention to Rossellini's fimmaking methods and the ways that the film blends its fiction with non-fiction documentary elements and the ways it deviates from classical narrative.
Also on this disc is My Dad is 100 Years Old (18:01). The direction of this short film, made in 2005, is by Guy Maddin, but the result is a full collaboration with Isabella Rossellini, who had worked with Maddin previously on The Saddest Music in the World. It's a heartfelt if idiosyncratic homage by Rossellini (the credited writer) who as well as appearing as herself, also plays her mother (the resemblance is quite spooky) and also David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock (seen in profile) and Federico Fellini. In fact, she plays everyone on screen other than an obviously male belly (credited to one Isaac Paz Sr). As with all the other films on these disc, the soundtrack is LPCM 2.0, but where they are mono this has a complex Dolby Surround sound design.
The only extra on the Fear disc is quite a substantial one, an entire feature film. This is The Machine That Kills Bad People (La machina ammazzacattivi, 84:34), as with the other films including a restoration caption). Directed by Rossellini, though without Bergman, this was begun in 1948 but completed in 1952: Rossellini was notably restless and often left his assistants to complete works while he went on to other things. A comedy and a fantasy, this is quite dissimilar to the other features in the set, and shows Rossellini wanting to move on from what he saw as increasingly becoming the clichés of the neorealist movement. (Compare it if you will with another film made by one of the leading neorealists, Vittorio De Sica's Miracle in Milan, also a comic fantasy.) Given that this film may well not have had a release on its own, it's a welcome inclusion here.
The BFI's booklet in the box set (there may be different ones in the individual DVD releases) runs to thirty-six pages. It begins with "Their Voyage to Italy", an overview by Tag Gallagher of the years of Bergman and Rossellini's relationship and the films they made together. (Spoiler warning.) There are pieces on the individual films by Adriano Aprà (which goes into more detail about the variant versions of Stromboli), Laura Mulvey and Peter Bondanella. The last-named also writes an essay-length piece on The Machine That Kills Bad People among the notes on the extras. In the same section, Paul Fairclough writes about The War of the Volcanoes and My Dad is 100 Years Old. Also in the booklet are credits for all three main features and the extras, transfer notes and disc credits and stills.
Last updated: 04/05/2018 16:06:46