“It’s not whether you cry, it’s whether the audience thinks you’re crying.” – Ingrid Bergman
Scribbled among my viewing notes while watching this boxed set is the line: “Bergman is not the most convincing crier.” When called on to cry (as she often is), she tends to switch emotional gears abruptly, cover her face, and issue a few impeccably-polished whimpers, sounding a bit like a romance comic book heroine reading the words “Sob. Sob. Sob.” from her word balloon.
As complaints go that’s both so minor, not to mention highly debatable (see below), I wouldn’t mention it except that a little research led me to an article from the April 16, 1947 “Pittsburgh Press.” It states: “Ingrid Bergman risks temporary blindness whenever she cries for the movie cameras, according to her makeup man, Frank Fitzgibbons. Testifying yesterday in his suit to gain membership in the Makeup Artists’ Union he said he put a kerchief over the end of a mentholated tube and blew fumes into the actress’ eyes to induce tears.”
Now that’s commitment, no matter how convincing the results, and it’s that degree of commitment to her craft that led Bergman to write a letter in 1947 to Italian director Roberto Rossellini expressing both her admiration for his neo-realist landmarks “Rome, Open City” (1945) and “Paisan” (1946) and her desire to make a film with him. Ms. Bergman clearly had impeccable taste as well as gumption. Rossellini’s reply the next year (texting was a lot slower on typewriters, kids) opened the door to a legendary partnership both on and off screen.
The Swedish import had quickly become Hollywood’s biggest box-office draw and her departure to make “little” films in Italy was a shock to the industry, though gossip rags focused more on the personal scandal once news of her subsequent affair with Rossellini became public knowledge. Bergman was already married with child, and her extramarital activities made her a stateside pariah, producing so much moral outrage that she was denounced in Congress by an indignant Senator Edwin C. Johnson whose movie “I Don’t Know What The Hell I’m Talking About And Need To Mind My Own Damn Business” never made it to theaters.
Bergman’s presence is, in some sense, one of the primary subjects of each of the films I this set. That’s certainly the case with “Stromboli” (1950) where the studio superstar shares the screen with a cast of mostly amateur actors and lends her highly polished glamor to am impoverished fishing village on the volcanic island of Stromboli. Karin (Bergman) is a Lithuanian woman displace by the war. In order to get out of a displaced persons camp, she marries guard Antonio (Mario Vitale) and returns to his hometown where she is instantly repelled by the squalid living conditions. She immediately begins to plot her escape from her newest prison.
It’s difficult to fathom exactly what Karin expected to find in an Italian fishing village, but she is as complex as she is capricious. Karin switches from sweetness to rage in the blink of an eye, and can be unbearably cruel, especially when she dismisses Antonio and his fellow villagers as being beneath her station. Ostracized by the local women for her lack of modesty, she wanders around the increasingly confining town looking for any way out and using every tool in her kit: she even tries to seduce a priest at one point. Her behavior is often alienating and puzzling, but powered by the desperate logic of a survivor intent on winning a game that’s completely rigged against her. The finale takes her over the top of a still-smoking volcano and closer to the maker who rigged the game and may or may not provide her a winning tip.
“Stromboli”met with a mixed critical reception, failing to please either American critics who wanted another Bergman vehicle or European cinephiles looking for another rigorous neo-realist tract. Bergman and Rossellini, now fully committed both creatively and romantically (they were officially married in 1950 and had three children by 1952), forged on undaunted to their next project.
“Europe ’51” (1952) is a film constructed around a thesis. While working on the magnificent period piece “The Flowers of St. Francis” (1950), Rossellini imagined that if St. Francis returned today he would be treated as a madman. He cast Bergman in an effort to prove it. Irene (Bergman) is a wealthy woman in Rome who experiences a terrible tragedy that causes her to reevaluate her priorities. Influenced by an ardently Communist acquaintance, she devotes herself to charity work among the poor, eventually sacrificing her duties as a wife and socialite to spend time with unwed mothers, prostitutes, and other “undesirables.” For such inexplicable behavior, her elite circle of family and friends decides she must be committed to a mental institution. Caring about the poor? That’s just nuts.
It’s a somewhat implausible premise suggesting a film stretching to fit its thesis statement, but perhaps makes more sense in context. Like Karin, Irene’s fate is dictated by a traumatized post-war environment where any sense of traditional order has been revealed as either illusion or hypocrisy; some see through the bullshit, others cling to it more ferociously. Rossellini doesn’t pull any ideological punches, and the screenplay (credited to four writers working from the director’s story) is peppered with on-the-nose dialogue about the class struggle. It’s bluntness is worn like a badge of honor, or perhaps a dare. In the end, characters state outright that Irene has become a saint, rendering the final shot of Bergman, behind bars and looking down at her appreciative flock, into instant religious iconography.
This shot inspired filmmaker and critic Eric Rohmer to claim that Bergman produced “the most beautiful tears ever shed on a screen.” It’s safe to say Rohmer wouldn’t agree with my initial claim about Bergman’s crying prowess and safer to assume I won’t win any argument with Eric Rohmer. His statement is even more intriguing when a close look at the scene reveals only the hint of a single tear just beginning to form before a cut to black. “It’s not whether you cry, it’s whether the audience thinks you’re crying.” I guess Ms. Bergman knew what she was talking about.
The power couple’s third feature collaboration has become their most celebrated. “Voyage To Italy (1954) has produced its fair share of seemingly hyperbolic praise, including the oft-repeated claim that it represents the beginning of modern cinema. Twenty minutes into the film, you might be wondering what all the hubbub is about. Be patient.
Katherine (Bergman) and Alex Joyce (George Sanders) are a British couple on vacation near Naples. They begin feuding almost from the start, but the bickering proves mostly to be a distraction to the main action, or inaction if you prefer. They soon go their separate ways, and the film’s most potent scenes, the ones that seem the most “modern” in light of the films that soon followed it, track Katherine alone as she visits museums, temples, and other tourist spots. In one of the many highlights of this compact 86-minute film, she is amazed by the minor miracle of an active sulfur spring that undergoes major transformations in response to even the slightest input; a puff of cigarette smoke near one fumarole produces plumes of steam as far as the eye can see.
It soon becomes apparent that Katherine’s character undergoes a similar, though far more subtle transformation in response to her borderline sublime experiences. Each statue, each skeleton has made an impact even if she doesn’t consciously process it. The ending hinges in part on whether the same is also true for Alex. As much as any movie of its time, “Voyage To Italy” celebrates the majesty of waiting and the power of being attentive and receptive. Whether or not it’s truly the first modern film, it is extraordinary and deeply moving and deserves a far more prominent place on academic curricula than it currently occupies. Maybe this Blu-ray release will help.
Bergman and Rossellini shot two more features together, with “Fear” (1954) and “Joan of Arc At the Stake” (1954) soon to follow before their professional and personal relationship deteriorated. They were divorced in 1957 and each soon remarried. Bergman returned to Hollywood where most, if not all, of her sins were forgiven, and Rossellini continued to defy viewers and critics to keep up with his ongoing creative reinventions in a career that continued to amaze at every step.
With Bergman’s involvement, it was understood that Rossellini’s films with her were going to be distributed internationally as well as domestically. This led to multiple versions of “Stromboli” and “Europe ’51”, none of which is really definitive.
Criterion has included both the English-language version of “Stromboli” (106 min.) and the Italian-language version titled “Stromboli Di Dio” (100 min.) Your initial reaction might be to assume the Italian must be the “correct” one, but that’s not the case, especially since Bergman was still just beginning to learn Italian. The English-language version is also not the same as the first butchered and truncated American version that Rossellini disavowed (not included here). One more complication: though the Italian version is shorter, it contains some footage that isn’t in the English version at all. The only solution is to find time to watch them both. Both are presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
It’s a similar situation with “Europe ’51” which has an English version (109 min.) and an Italian version (118 min.) The English version can be a little off-putting at times, especially when the Italian locals are dubbed with New York sit-com accents, but it’s also the version most are familiar with. The English version is in 1.37:1, the Italian in 1.33:1.
Mercifully, “Journey to Italy” has only one version, in English. It is presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
“Europe ’51” exhibits the most damage from the print source. There’s a hair in the gate in some early scenes, and a few other shots show varying degrees of damage with some particularly noticeable scratches around the 33 minute mark. In general though, damage is minor and the high-def print provides a rich contrast and level of image detail. Some of the close-ups really look luminous, though Ingrid Bergman’s DNA contributes to that. English and Italian versions don’t show much difference.
“Stromboli” doesn’t have nearly as much in the way of scratches and other distortions, but the overall image quality is perhaps not quite as sharp. It’s solid enough, but doesn’t really pop the way many 1080p Criterion transfers do. No complaints, but it’s not a knockout.
“Voyage To Italy” is the best looking of the bunch. There’s very little damage evident, and the image quality and contrast are very sharp throughout. You can see all kinds of detail on the statuary and other items glimpsed in the film. It’s a wonderful transfer.
All three films were restored from various prints, different sources for each of the films, and multiple sources for “Stromboli” itself.
Linear PCM Mono tracks for all five versions of the three films. I didn’t notice any particular issues with distortion on any of them. I haven’t listened much to either of the Italian versions, but the English dialogue is clearly mixed. Overall, the sound is flat but crisp on all three movies. English subtitles support the English (or Italian) dialogue. One minor complaint: in the English version of “Stromboli” you have to choose between two English subtitle options. One subtitles only Italian dialogue; the other subtitles only English dialogue. You might have to switch back and forth to get everything if you have any difficulty with the accented dubbing.
Each of the three films is stored on its own disc, with each disc housed in a separate keep case. All three keep cases tuck into the larger cardboard sleeve which also leaves room for the thick insert booklet. The third keep case includes “Voyage to Italy” as well as a separate disc of Supplements. Extras are scattered among the four discs.
On the “Stromboli” disc, we get a brief Introduction by Rossellini (2 min.) that was recorded for a 1963 French TV program. Italian critic Adriano Apra (2011, 16 min.) speaks about the scandal surrounding Bergman and Rossellini during the making of the film as well as other production issues. “Rossellini Under the Volcano” (45 min.) is a 1998 documentary by Nino Bizzarri (awesome name!) which revisits the island of Stromboli nearly fifty years after the film was shot there. Lead actor Mario Vitale is interviewed along with others who participated in the production.
On the “Europe ’51” disc, we get another brief introduction by Rossellini (1963, 5 min.), another interview with Adriano Apra (2011, 18 min.) and an interview with film historian Elena Dagrada (36 min.) about the competing versions of “Europe ’51” (none of which is the single definitive version).
On the “Journey To Italy” disc, we get an audio commentary by film critic Laura Mulvey. Which was recorded in 2003 and included on a BFI release of the film. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet. Another intro by Rossellini (1963, 2 min.) and another interview with Apra (2011, 11 min.). Isabella and Ingrid Rossellini, twin sisters born to Roberto and Ingrid, drop by for an interview (2013, 32 min.) which, of course, provides a unique perspective on the artists and the films. Martin Scorsese (2013, 11 min.) is interviewed by Kent Jones, and is both concise and eloquent in his appreciation.
On the same disc, we also get two visual essays. “”Living and Departed” is another effort from Criterion stalwart Tag Gallagher (23 min.) and I have to admit I found it mildly disappointing compared to Mr. Gallagher’s prior stellar contributions. In comparing the films, he focuses a lot on repeated motions and shapes, but keeps the analysis fairly superficial. I was more taken with “Surprised By Death,” the visual essay by scholar James Quandt (39 min.) who teases out some of the shared thematic elements in persuasive detail. The last inclusion on the disc is five minutes of publicity footage of “The Rossellinis on Capri.”
The fourth Supplements disc (tucked into the same sleeve as “Journey To Italy”) begins with the 62-minute documentary “Rossellini Through His Own Eyes,” a 1992 documentary by Adriano Apra which cobbles together interviews of Rossellini throughout the years along with clips to take us on a chronological tour of his remarkable career.
My favorite feature anywhere in the set is the brilliant 17-minute short “My Dad Is 100 Years Old” (2005). Directed by Guy Maddin, the film is written by and stars Isabella Rossellini in an appreciation of her father Roberto’s career on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday. Maddin fans have some sense of what to expect, and it’s wonderful. Rossellini plays every role except that of her father, who is portrayed only as a voluminous and much-loved belly. She portrays her mother, Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick and others while putting into perspective both her father’s career and her childhood memories of him. Apparently her twin sister Ingrid was not pleased with the movie, and I’m sure she had her own valid reasons. From my point of view, it’s one of the most touching tributes to an artist I have ever seen.
“Ingrid Bergman Remembered” (1996, 50 min.) is a retrospective of the actress’ career hosted and narrated by Pia Lindstrom, Bergman’s daughter from her first marriage. It’s a fairly standard biographical study but with the added insight of Lindstrom’s personal observations. It’s nice to see clips from some of Bergman’s less appreciated film. More attention is devoted to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which Bergman felt helped her break away from nice country girl roles, than to that movie with Humphrey Bogart.
Rossellini’s niece G. Fiorella Mariani (2013, 15 min.) describes her relationship with her uncle and especially her friendship with her uncle’s new wife Ingrid Bergman. It’s not exactly film analysis, but it’s yet another personal perspective in a set that is loaded with them. It also includes come color home footage shot by Bergman.
Finally, Criterion has included “The Chicken” (1953, 16 min.), a short film directed by Rossellini and starring Bergman, which was originally part of the portmanteau film “Siamo donne” (1953) which also had a segment by Visconti. “The Chicken” isn’t one of Rossellini’s highlights, but it’s good to have it available.
The squarebound 94-page booklet includes essays by Richard Brody, Dina Iordanova, Elena Dagrada, Fred Camper, and Paul Thomas. It also includes the very brief letter Bergman wrote to Rossellini as well as the much longer letter he wrote in response. We also get an artistic statement by Rossellini about “Stromboli,” an excerpt from a 1954 interview of Rossellini by Eric Rohmer, and an excerpt of a 1965 Rossellini interview by Adriano Apra and Maurizio Ponzi.
But aside from all that, there’s nothing much in this set.
I’m most partial to Rossellini’s late period historical films, but the great thing about this great director is that every phase of his career offers plenty to choose from. “Stromboli” can be as intermittently frustrating as its protagonist, but it’s the kind of film you don’t forget. “Europe ’51” is my least favorite of the set, but has been mentioned by Rossellini as his favorite, and really who are you going to trust? “Voyage To Italy” is a masterpiece.
The extras on this set are copious and insightful, and the inclusion of the Guy Maddin/Isabella Rossellini “My Dad Is 100 Years Old” puts it right over the top. By any standard, this is one of the best Blu-ray sets of the year.