With the War Trilogy behind him, the esteemed Roberto Rossellini moved himself out of the grime and the gloom of the war-torn European mainland with 1950’s Stromboli. This would be the first film that the Italian heavyweight would make with the too-beautiful-for-words Ingrid Bergman. In Stromboli the actress plays Karin, a woman from Lithuania who seems predestined to remain between a rock and a hard place (an emotional predicament quite literally conveyed here).
A complex, depressing and somewhat slow-moving film, Stromboli succeeds through the power of Ingrid Bergman’s work and the articulate, thematically rich nature of the film’s titular island. These two elements intuitively tap into the mentalities and cultural tensions swirling about in the post-WWII world, creating a multi-layered, rewarding viewing experience.
In the film’s opening, Karin has found herself interned in a women’s prisoner camp in the immediate aftermath of WWII. All is not lost however. The women have a bevy of swooning G.I.s to keep them company. Each night the soldiers cluster around the fenced-in women’s compound in a manner which mirrors the ravenous hunger of the zombies from the current season of the Walking Dead.
Bergman’s luminous Karin has (unsurprisingly) her own admirer: the charming yet ultimately feckless Antonio (Mario Vitale). The pair meet each night at the fence to exchange words and attempt to smooch through the sharp barbed-wire fence that separates them.
This early scene possesses a potent, foreshadowing subtext – with the barbed-wire symbolizing how painful and thorny this pair’s dynamic is destined to become. Yet at the beginning Karin (unwisely) looks upon Antonio as an opportunity. When he brashly proposes marriage after only knowing her for a week she accepts; it’s her ticket out of the prison and to what she erroneously believes will be greener pastures.
That pasture turns out to be the titular Stromboli, an island off the coast of Italy. Dominated by an active volcano which ominously looms over the island’s tiny village like a sleeping dragon, Stromboli is beautiful albeit harsh and unforgiving (both geographically and culturally).
Upon arriving at the island Karin’s idealism immediately vanishes. A volcanic eruption has decimated the countryside, covering the area in solidified lava. The couple’s house is battered and scarred. Karin’s festering anxiety soon begins rising to the surface, specifically when she examines her new home’s bleak interior, before emerging to get a full look at the oppressive isolation of the surrounding sea.
It is the nature of isolation that seems to be the most palpable theme running throughout Stromboli. Simmering allusions to ethnic divides appear, with Karin remarking after arriving that she is part of a different race, incapable of living in the squalor of Stromboli.
The early scenes between the lovely Bergman and the studly Vitale are effective yet hardly emotionally involving. The romantic possibility of their relationship at the beginning of the film quickly descends (and then remains) into a prolonged period of acrimonious bickering. These are two fairly unlikable people, whose personality flaws are exacerbated by the nature of their relationship.
Despite existing under the same roof, there is a huge, physical divide between the couple. They never express much intimacy. For example, the bed that Karin lounges on is a small twin, wedged snugly into a corner. It can hardly incorporate Karin, much less her husband. Additionally, hardly a peck or a meaningful glance is exchanged between her and Antonio, who gets a job as a fisherman after arriving on the island. Essentially, for a majority of the film the couple is hardly within ear shot.
As one part of this dynamic, Bergman offers a powerful portrait of agitation and impatient elitism. Channeling the ethos of the European post-war experience, Bergman’s performance uncomfortably suggests a woman desperate for change, for socio-economic improvement. A scene between Karin and the small community’s priest (played dutifully by Renzo Cesana) is just one example of this character’s complex personality. In this scene the audience learns a little more about Karin’s past, specifically how her rash decision to marry Antonio in order to pluck herself from a difficult situation is reflective of a pattern. Karin had attempted before to align herself with a man in order to improve her circumstances, but had much to her chagrin ended up going nowhere.
Karin’s anxiety over finding herself in a comparable situation suggests what was a fairly ubiquitous cultural mentality: the optimism of a post-WWII world, and then the frustration of that optimism going unfulfilled. In her scene with the community’s priest, Karin protests that the island of Stromboli, with its volcanic terrain and aging population, is hardly worth improving. (The priest had mentioned that one of Stromboli’s now deceased residents had left the parish money to improve Stromboli’s graveyard.) Karin’s frantic, selfish (and even lascivious) attempt to convince the priest to give her the money instead (for the sole purpose of getting to someplace like America) conveys the dissatisfaction felt for Europe’s mangled state. The possibility of rebirth, of rebuilding is not something that Karin can consider, at least not with any real seriousness.
The other manner in which Stromboli connects to the nature of its mid-century time period is through its depiction of gender relations; specifically, the film presents the woeful, marginalized state of women in the post-WWII years. This theme also provides a potential connection to the real lives of actress Bergman and filmmaker Rossellini while they were shooting Stromboli. The actor and director fell deeply in love while shooting the film, had an affair and finally a child out-of-wedlock. This ended up causing a scandal so potent that Bergman was denounced on the floor of the United States Senate, which essentially ended her American film career temporally (she would be restored by her role in Anastasia).
This air of infamy looms over Stromboli, with the punitive, ostracizing mentality that the islanders express towards Karin’s forging a connection to the real-life fate of Bergman (once the affair with Rossillini became public knowledge). The islanders’ behavior establishes how their culture views women as ideally being little more than quiet housewives, who are utterly subordinate to their husbands.
Stromboli’s concern with parsing gender dynamics allows the film to also explore the nature of masculinity. This is where the performance of Mario Vitale as Antonio works really well. Karin’s largely innocent behavior, like where she talks with another young fisherman or mildly refurbishes the couple’s home, causes Antonio to begin getting flak from his island community, who hoot and hollar that he is a “cuckhold.” This sends Antonio into a frenzy, prompting him to attempt to control his wife by any means necessary. These scenes are strong, with Mario Vitale’s wild eyes conveying both anger and sadness simultaneously.
All of these themes coalesce in the film’s final section, which features two iconic scenes. One involves a long sequence where Stromboli’s fishermen take in a massive haul of tuna. This is a meditative, almost laborious scene to sit through for the viewer, with the communal, ceremonial nature of the fishing being richly established by Rossellini’s fly-on-the-wall aesthetic. Of course, when the school of tuna is finally ensnared it leaves a huge impression. There is a rawness here, a violence that instantly draws a dichotomy between Karin and Antonio’s worlds once more. (The couple had been attempting to reconcile directly before the school’s appearance.)
The second scene that needs to be discussed functions as the film’s final moments. It is one of those endings that is also about as frustratingly ambiguous as they come. Without giving much away the scene suggests that while Karin may not have found peace within the tumultuous, unknowable ethos of the post-WWII world, she has at least found the ability to place herself in the context of a much larger universe. She has experienced something through a solitary lens, free from a male companion. It is not an overly comforting ending by any stretch of the imagination, but like the film itself it is evocative, powerful and most of all real.