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You Must Change Your Life: The Films of Roberto Rossellini & Ingrid Bergman

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You Must Change Your Life: The Films of Roberto Rossellini & Ingrid Bergman

RKO Radio Pictures

“My father was a genius,” says Isabella Rossellini, in her searching Guy Maddin-directed short tribute to her father Roberto, My Dad is 100 Years Old, which marks his centenary. After this statement, she pauses briefly, then says, “I think.” Her confusion is sweet and quite understandable. Rossellini has had passionate fans, especially the directors of the French New Wave like Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Rohmer, all of whom wrote heady tributes to his difficult, ambiguous films. One can’t imagine Breathless (1960) without Rossellini’s example, and surely Antonioni was influenced, especially by Journey to Italy (1953). Martin Scorsese devotes long passages to Rossellini’s key early works in his documentary on Italian cinema, My Voyage To Italy (1999), and there’s an air of special pleading in his endorsement, particularly when he talks up Europa ’51 (1952), as if he knows that many people won’t give it a chance because of its out of synch soundtrack.

Rossellini was an artist serenely certain of his own intellectual and emotional depth, and he gave endless, detailed interviews describing what his work means or was meant to mean; sometimes the results did not quite match his intentions, for he was precise and sloppy in roughly equal measure. A full-scale retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art throughout December 2006 gave us all a chance to take stock of his uneven but seminal career. The festival is particularly valuable because it’s showing many of the hard-to-see “educational” television movies of his later years, as well as his essential post-war trilogy, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1947). If I were to pick Rossellini’s best film, it would be The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), a mysterious and gently comic look at the saint and his followers. But anyone who feels that the cinema’s chief glory lies in the collaboration of great directors with great actresses must check out the first three features Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman. In almost every way, personally and artistically, they were unsuited to each other, yet their mismatch led to movies that laid the groundwork for the burst of modernist filmmaking in the sixties and seventies.

Rossellini began life as something of a playboy and layabout whose main interests were chasing women and driving fast cars. These interests would persist, naturally, as he fell into moviemaking during the Fascist years in Italy, but he became a standard-bearer for Italian cinema after the war with Open City, which introduced the much-debated concept of neo-realism. This Italian movement for raw reality looks fairly contrived today, especially in the work of De Sica. But contrivance of any kind is never simple in Rossellini’s work: he perplexed his followers by jostling melodramatic, stylized characters and situations against on-the-fly, spontaneous elements. In his best films, these opposing elements feed and strengthen each other, so that Anna Magnani in Open City and the showcase film L’amore (1948) is like a larger-than-life apotheosis of a real woman captured documentary-style.

When she saw Open City and then Paisan, Ingrid Bergman was so impressed that she sent Rossellini a rather shameless fan letter. “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,” she wrote. At that time, she was the biggest star in Hollywood, fervently beloved, especially for her sexy nun in Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Marys (1945), which is actually somewhat close to Rossellini’s hybrid of deep sentiment and patient, often aggressive observation.

Bergman thought she was fed up with the artificiality of studio filmmaking and seemed to long to be shot down in the streets as Magnani was in Open City, the tops of her stockings erotically exposed in death. Rossellini didn’t know who Bergman was when he got her letter, but he had razor-sharp instincts, and he moved in on her with all the considerable charm at his disposal. With their first film, Stromboli (1950), Rossellini keyed into Bergman’s guilt-ridden and torrential 1940’s sexuality and touched off an international scandal when he won her away from her husband and child, then got her pregnant out of wedlock. This caused an enormous uproar in America, with Senator Edwin C. Johnson denouncing them from the Senate floor, calling Rossellini a “love pirate” and “degenerate.”

Remarkably, Stromboli doesn’t advocate the rejection of caution for passion; indeed, it is partly a film about how sexuality simply isn’t enough to get by on (another influence for Antonioni’s subsequent meditations on similar themes). Bergman plays Karin, a displaced woman who marries a simple fisherman (Mario Vitale) to get out of a refugee camp; he takes her to live on Stromboli, a rough, nearly deserted island dominated by an active volcano. We don’t learn much about Karin’s life before and during the war, but we do see that she can only relate to people sexually, whether it’s her husband, a child in the street or a priest. This is not a likable woman. When Isabella Rossellini plays her mother in My Dad is 100 Years Old, she gives Bergman a kind of spacey ruthlessness that matches up with what we see of Karin on Stromboli. Isabella’s Ingrid briefly ponders how she hurt Anna Magnani by stealing Rossellini away from her, then blithely and practically says, “Too bad.” Bergman was a woman who famously said that happiness was “good health and a bad memory.” But when she was with Rossellini, he made sure that Bergman never fell back on such winner-like evasiveness. Rossellini attacks narcissism relentlessly, which is why his films are especially necessary today, when self-involvement is a seldom-assailed cult.

In Stromboli, Bergman restlessly dramatizes boredom and unease, in much the way Monica Vitti would for Antonioni. Rossellini calls her on her opportunistic-actress sexuality, but he also celebrates her beauty, for the first and last time, lingering on her sensual mouth, her sexy long hair, and her juicy behind in tight slacks. It’s as if he’s considering this woman, his quarry, and he’s not sure he likes what he sees (it took Von Sternberg six films with Dietrich before he could be as tough with himself as Rossellini is from the very beginning). “You are not modest,” says a Stromboli crone, as Bergman’s Karin tries to brighten up her drab house. Bergman’s angry reaction to her condemnation seems extreme, as if her own frustration with this neo-realist venture is bleeding into her performance. Karin’s attempted seduction of the local priest is as brazen as Bergman’s initial letter to Rossellini, and the priest rebukes her with the director’s cardinal exhortation: “Think!” (It is this same call for reflection that leads their daughter Isabella to doubts about her father’s importance.)

Karin is a woman filled with vanity and pride—she has no faith in God, which means she has no faith in herself. “With me, God has never been merciful,” she says, and later, to the priest, she insists, “Your God won’t help!” The punishing life she is forced to lead on Stromboli is a metaphor for the unceasing hardships of existence, and also a living (puritan?) example of the need to reject complacency and creature comforts for tough-minded meditation. Karin’s hedonistic strategies to distract herself from real life are seen as spiritually depleting, whether they are sexual, artistic or simply based in the assumptions of her class. We find out she comes from an upper class family, but she probably exaggerates her station, since Karin and Bergman are both prone to actressy embellishment. It might seem mistaken to conflate Karin and Bergman herself to such a degree, but Rossellini has no patience with artificial constructs.

Working knowledge of the circumstances behind the film’s making add quite a lot to its layers of discourse, but its power lays well beyond the realm of gossip. Pregnant, Karin tries to escape the island by walking past the volcano, but harsh nature holds her back and leads her to thoughts of suicide. “I’ll finish it!” she cries. “I haven’t the courage!” She falls asleep in total despair, then wakes up in the morning transformed. “Oh God, oh God,” she says, quietly, as she bathes in the purifying sun (a radiant close-up of Bergman’s face opening up to love). “What mystery,” she says. “What beauty.” Karin reflects honestly about her life on Stromboli: “They were horrible. They don’t know what they’re doing. I’m even worse,” she concludes, calmly.

In a moment of true religious salvation, she accepts blessed responsibility for the child inside her, just as Bergman and Rossellini decided not to abort their child, which would have saved them so much trouble. The (actual) child in her stomach is a miracle, but Karin doesn’t know if she’s up to the challenge. She ends the film shouting to God for the strength and courage to carry on, as Rossellini cuts to white birds flying free in the sky. Stromboli, also called Stromboli terra di dio (Land of God), embodies the uncanny invocation of the Rilke poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with, “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” Like so many of Rossellini’s other movies, it is a stirring call to spiritual revolution.

In their next film, Europa ’51, Bergman has shorter hair and seems much more matronly. The sexual interest we feel in Stromboli has ebbed away, but in its place is a loving celebration of this actress’s stubborn will and her longing for a higher purpose, which is what led her to Rossellini in the first place. It’s a generous gift of a film from a director to an actress and it has a stark, altruistic purity, for it seems clear that did not mesh well with Bergman on a personal level past their initial coming-together, though they did marry and have more children under the pressure of the world’s outraged gaze. (For the full story of Rossellini’s life and work, see Tag Gallagher’s encyclopedic, monumental biography, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini.)

Bergman plays Irene, a flippant, rushed society woman who fatally ignores her young son. We see that their relationship was once too close, and that Irene is disturbed by the boy’s lover-like clinging (she tells him to turn around as she dresses, and when he reaches for her, she swats him away like a bug). The boy throws himself off a steep staircase during a dinner party and is rushed to the hospital. When the smarmy Communist Andre (Ettore Giannini) tells Irene that he heard the boy talking in his hospital bed and that his jump was a suicide attempt, Bergman shoots him the exact scary, resentful glare she gives her monstrous daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978). This was her last feature, her only good movie after her tenure in Italy, and Rossellini approved of it, glad that his former wife had escaped Hollywood lies one last time without him.

An authentic, self-regarding actress is almost always too selfish to be a good mother, and Rossellini confronts Bergman with this in these opening scenes of Europa ’51, but then he gives her the time and space to develop an abstract maternal love that will encompass all of humanity. As the film goes on, Rossellini focuses increasingly on Bergman’s extraordinary face, her eyes filled with sharp, conflicting ideas (the director-husband gives her this quality through the example of his own furious intellect and through very careful lighting, for Bergman was never known as the brightest candle on the piano). Her Irene is a prim woman, unlike Karin, but she learns to love and understand everyone, moving towards people who need her: the poor, prostitutes, even criminals. Her upper-class husband (Alexander Knox) doesn’t understand this spiritual conversion, and he eventually places her in an insane asylum. Irene will continue to find herself through helping the mentally afflicted, just as Rossellini’s St. Francis is transfigured when he embraces a leper.

Europa ’51 has severe problems. A lot of its dialogue is didactic, Giannini’s Communist is a cardboard figure, and Giulietta Masina’s free-and-easy proletarian earth mother is grotesquely miscalculated both visually and aurally (her voice is dubbed by a woman with a heavy Bronx accent). As mentioned before, the dialogue usually doesn’t synch up, and the political commentary is both dated and obvious. No matter. Through the concentration of Rossellini and Bergman, through the channel of his mind and her heart, Europa ’51 works beautifully as an expression of longing for universal love in a ruinously self-centered modern world. “You’re not alone,” Irene tells a new inmate of the asylum. “Don’t worry. I’m with you. I’ll stay with you.” Rossellini knows that everyone should be able to say this and hear this, in turn, and that it truly doesn’t matter who you say it to in the end. The point of the film is that it should be said and heard, genuinely, as often as possible, and that the sickness of twentieth century egoism should never prevent us from loving others in the most promiscuous way.

Rossellini then made a short film with Bergman for the omnibus movie Siamo donne (1952), which was supposed to present scenes from the real lives of several actresses (such as Rossellini’s scorned lover Anna Magnani). Their episode, called “The Chicken,” features a somewhat tired-looking Bergman explaining a “silly” story about a bothersome fowl. It is indeed silly, and pointless, but it reveals another facet of how Rossellini viewed his wife. We see her sitting on her porch in sunglasses, reading, drinking and anxiously fuming, while her love child with Rossellini, Robertino, stands perilously close to some water. “No one pays attention to me!” Bergman shouts, as her child teeters on the brink of disaster. Bergman’s physical awkwardness, inattention to her children, vague go-getter spirit and deep sense of shame are played for comedy, not too successfully, but in a way that let’s us see Rossellini’s growing disenchantment with her.

Voyage in Italy, their third movie together, is a key work in the history of film: thorny, alienated and alienating, it inaugurated the exquisite unease of the sixties art film (much to Rossellini’s later dismay). “Noise and boredom,” snipes George Sanders’ Alex, as Bergman’s Katherine drives them through the Italian countryside. They play the Joyces, an English couple on holiday, assaulted at every turn by the rude vitality of Naples. Katherine is a dreamy, over-lipsticked woman in a leopard-print coat, while Alex is a haughty man who uses sarcasm to hide his deepest feelings. During an uneasy would-be siesta in the glaring sun, Katherine recalls a young poet who loved her, telling Alex how he came to see her when he was at death’s door. “How very poetic,” he says. “Much more poetic than his verses.” This put-down of her facile romanticism clues us in to how much Alex loves his wife, and also on how exhausted he is by their differences. The estrangement the Joyces feel from each other is so deep that it takes on a cosmic significance—this is a film about pure existential panic. Rossellini got what he wanted from Bergman and Sanders by keeping them off-balance, never giving them a set script or telling them what the film was about. He knew what the film was about: Bergman and Sanders not knowing what the film was about, their performer’s anxiety standing in for the Joyces’ dread, and the mistake of Rossellini’s own marriage to a Hollywood star.

Roberto’s brother Renzo composed the scores for most of his films, and Renzo’s work adds subtle, but extreme emotion to the often pitiless intellectual rigor of his brother’s movies. His ominous music follows Katherine as she tours many a museum and is assailed again and again by the taunting sensuality of the past. Heat and leisure strip this couple of every defense mechanism they had, and their sudden uncertainty leads them to question everything, as Mrs. Moore does in Forster’s A Passage to India, wondering at the unfathomable emptiness of the universe, the dome beyond the dome beyond the dome. Bergman and Sanders are framed so that their faces are stuck uncomfortably off-center, as if they were butterflies pinned to a wall. She’s a tight-ass, he’s a smart-ass, and they step on each other’s nerves until they impulsively agree to a divorce.

One day, Rossellini set up his camera as an excavation was being done; he did not know that a dead couple would be revealed under the dust. When this happened, he knew he had the ending of his movie. Katherine cries out when she sees the bodies, and the Joyces wander away together, Renzo Rossellini’s music expressing a bottomless sense of desolation. “Life is so short,” Katharine says, the deepest thought this limited woman can come up with to meet the ultimate revelation of her own mortality. “That’s why one should make the best of it,” replies Alex, in an English public school get-on-with it tone that is pierced by an awareness of the wholly inadequate quality of such a response. This is a man who is much smarter than his wife, though he’s still an emotional coward, and Sanders, one of the most overlooked of all great film actors, plays all these levels with unerring instinctual marksmanship. When Alex hears his own tone of voice, the message he gets couldn’t be clearer: you must change your life, not by divorcing your wife but by trying to love her honestly. Rossellini uses a crane shot, unusual for him, to express the miracle of their coming back together during a parade. The ending suggests that marital compromise is a kind of salvation. The Joyces pledge to stay with each other. Rossellini and Bergman headed closer to separation.

Their next collaboration was a movie of the Paul Claudel/Arthur Honegger oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954), which they had toured extensively throughout Europe. It’s an almost purely joyous film and stands as Rossellini’s final gift to his wife, who had earned the right to play Joan the saint with her steady commitment to her husband’s difficult vision. It begins with Joan ascending to heaven amid a blurred kaleidoscope of angels (Rossellini’s visual influence for Joan was Méliès). In the Cinecittà print shown at Moma, Bergman speaks her role in Italian, and this language really brings out her passion; her mature beauty, even in stage-white make-up, verges on the awe-inspiring. Many of her scenes are played in long shot against a backdrop of stars, as if Rossellini was finally allowing that Bergman is a star too, and a special one.

A gross Commedia dell’arte court (including sheep and a sprightly pig) condemn Joan—Rossellini preaches the value of total humility and is fiercely against all forms of power, especially kings and governing bodies. The whole film describes how Joan conquers her fears and stays true to herself, and the stirring climax comes when she flings up her arms and shouts, “I’ll burn up like a candle!” She accepts her martyrdom blissfully, though in the end, at the actual stake, some of her doubts return (just as Bergman both believed in and doubted her husband’s artistic methods). The Honegger music is drug-like in its ability to produce euphoria, the mise en scène is simple and affecting, and Bergman reaches her Rossellini-era apotheosis as she cries, “Hope is triumphant! Faith is triumphant! God is triumphant!” This fourth major Rossellini-Bergman film is barely ever screened, and it should be made more widely available (there is also a version dubbed in French that doesn’t use Bergman’s voice, but the Italian version is superior).

Their last film together, Fear (1954), is a dark-hued failure, a plot-driven tale of blackmail and forced emotional torment that doesn’t seem to interest Rossellini all that much. He observes the rote agony of his wife with a rather contemptuous eye, especially her bizarrely sensual climactic profession of love to a husband who has spent the whole film torturing her. (“Ah Ingrid,” Hitchcock often sighed, at parties. “She’d do it with doorknobs.”) After this, they divorced and she went back to Hollywood, appearing in a succession of lousy commercial movies, while he moved away from narrative into documentary and strange, uninflected historical re-creations for television. But the first three films Rossellini made with Bergman are essential viewing and open to many new interpretations. Life is too short to plumb all their meanings, but, as Alex Joyce sadly says, we should make the best of it, watch them as often and as closely we can, and let them strip us of our vanity until we lay like Karin on the volcano, alive to the light of a new day within ourselves.

The Museum of Modern Art is located at 11 West 53rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan. Click here for more information on the Roberto Rossellini retrospective.