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Volcanic is the perfect word to describe the emotional landscape of Stromboli (1949), Ingrid Bergman's first film with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Not only is the film set on an isolated island in the Tyrrhenian Sea with an active volcano but the scandal that arose from the subsequent production sent resounding tremors through the Hollywood community. Bergman fell in love with her director during the filming, left her husband and daughter Pia, and became pregnant, bearing Rossellini a son. The public's outrage, fanned by unforgiving gossip columnists, helped end Bergman's career in Hollywood for many years and greatly tarnished her image as the wholesome Swedish beauty who had won a Best Actress Oscar for Gaslight (1944) and achieved screen immortality as Ilsa, opposite Humphrey Bogart's Rick, in Casablanca (1942).
Bergman's relationship with Rossellini began when she saw two of his films, inspiring her to write a letter. According to her autobiography, Ingrid Bergman: My Story, the note read, "Dear Mr. Rossellini, I saw your films Open City  and Paisan , and enjoyed them very much. 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." The letter was sent to Rossellini's attention at Minerva Films in Italy but soon after its delivery the studio was destroyed in an accidental fire. Strangely enough, Bergman's note was found intact in the ashes and delivered to Rossellini.
No one was more surprised than Bergman to receive a response to her half serious suggestion. "Dear Mrs. Bergman," Rossellini replied. "I have waited a long time before writing, because I wanted to make sure what I was going to propose to you. But first of all I must say that my way of working is extremely personal. I do not prepare a scenario, which, I think terribly limits the scope of work...I start out with very precise ideas and a mixture of dialogues and intentions which, as things go on, I select and improve." The director went on to describe the plot of Stromboli (the working title was After the Storm) which depicts the plight of Karin Bjiorsen, a Lithuanian war refugee who marries an Italian fisherman in order to escape an interment camp: "She followed this man, being certain she had found an uncommon creature, a savior...instead she is stranded in this savage island, all shaken up by the vomiting volcano, and where the earth is so dark and the sea looks like mud saturated with sulfur." Unhappy in her new life and unable to fit in with the islanders, Karin becomes desperate to escape after learning she is pregnant. A lighthouse keeper agrees to help her, leading her out of the village and over the mountaintop where they are threatened by a volcanic eruption. In the dramatic resolution to the story, Karin reconsiders her actions and returns home to her husband.
The actual filming of Stromboli on a primitive island with no modern conveniences proved to be a physically exhausting experience for Bergman and her co-workers. It was also frustrating for an actress used to working with Hollywood professionals. Now she was acting with amateurs who rarely knew their lines or when to deliver them. "So to solve it," Bergman wrote in her autobiography, "Roberto attached a string to one of their big toes inside their shoes. Then he stood there, holding this bunch of strings, and first he'd pull that string and one man spoke, and then he'd pull another string and another man spoke. I didn't have a string on my toe, so I didn't know when I was supposed to speak. And this was realistic filmmaking! The dialogue was never ready, or there never was any dialogue. I thought I was going crazy."
For Bergman, who was already pregnant by this point, the most difficult scene to shoot was her climactic emotional breakdown on the top of the crater. In As Time Goes By: The Life of Ingrid Bergman, biographer Laurence Leamer wrote, "Ingrid got on one mule, and she and Roberto and the film crew set off for the volcano. The mules struggled upward, jumping across the smaller gullies, scratching for a foothold on the black gravelly surface. Roberto had the camera set up near the cone of the volcano. For her scene walking up to the volcano, Ingrid wore thin sandals, scant protection against the black lava sands, as hot as a tar roof on a summer afternoon...Roberto was usually fond of quick takes, but he rehearsed this scene over and over. Repeatedly Ingrid struggled upward, through the fumes and the stench of sulfur. She was soaked with sweat...When Ingrid and the others returned to the village at noon, they were on foot. To save time, they had slid two thousand feet down the mountain on their behinds. Their faces were black and sweat-streaked." Yet they would return to the volcano repeatedly for more scenes and one production executive, Lodovici Muratori, was eventually overcome by the fumes and died from a heart attack.
Initially, Rossellini planned to film Stromboli with Anna Magnani (his mistress at the time) until Ingrid Bergman entered the picture. Yet, he still insisted in his contract with RKO that he wouldn't direct Stromboli unless the studio also financed a film with Magnani. So, RKO produced Volcano (1949), directed by William Dieterle and starring Magnani as a prostitute from Naples who returns to her fishing village on an island near Stromboli. The film even ends with a similar volcanic eruption.
RKO Studios (under the ownership of Howard Hughes) was unhappy with Rossellini's final 117 minute cut of Stromboli and released it in a drastically cut version (81 minutes) in the U.S. Most critics panned the film (in some cities it was boycotted by religious groups), choosing to focus instead on the scandalous behind-the-scenes relationship between Bergman and Rossellini (the couple were legally married in 1950). Audiences, who attended Stromboli out of curiosity, found the film both depressing and decidedly un-erotic. Seen today, however, Stromboli is clearly a pivotal film in both Rossellini and Bergman's careers, representing a unique fusion of the documentary form with Hollywood melodrama. The rugged landscape of the volcanic island provides a truly spectacular setting and the scene where Karin observes the fishermen catching tuna at sea is one of the most visually remarkable sequences in Italian cinema. Bergman and Rossellini would go on to film five more movies together with Viaggio in Italia (aka Voyage to Italy, 1953) generally considered their best collaboration.
Producer/Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Roberto Rossellini, Sergio Amidei, Gian Paolo Callegari, Renzo Cesana, Art Cohn
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
Film Editing: Jolanda Benvenuti, Roland Gross
Original Music: Renzo Rossellini
Principal Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Karin Bjiorsen), Mario Vitale (Antonio), Renzo Cesana (The Priest), Mario Sponzo (The Lighthouse Keeper).
BW-107m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford