On the Edge of the Volcano: Isabella Rossellini on Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Stromboli (1950)

stromboli_posterIt all started with a letter. In 1948, Ingrid Bergman (at the height of her Hollywood career) wrote to Roberto Rossellini (triumphant director of Rome, Open City and Paisà) to express her admiration for his films. She hoped to act for him in the future.

Her letter not only set into motion one of the most notorious celebrity scandals of the 20th century, but also sparked one of the most fruitful director-muse collaborations in cinema history.

At the Cinémathèque Française this summer, Isabella Rossellini, one of Bergman and Rossellini’s three children, shared memories of her parents and reflected on their legacy. Her interview in French* with Serge Toubiana, following a screening of Stromboli, was the highlight of the Cinémathèque’s retrospective to celebrate the centenary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth.

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Isabella Rossellini in conversation with Serge Toubiana on the stage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Salle Henri Langlois (my photo).

Rossellini explained that her mother’s letter was by no means an unusual gesture for her. “Mama wrote many letters to directors whose films she liked. Sometimes she’d say, ‘If you have a character that you think would be right for me, I’d really like to work with you.’”

Unwilling to let studios dictate role after role for her, Bergman actively sought out cinema’s innovators. In her daughter’s words, “She wasn’t vain at all, not the way people think beautiful actors are. She was a great actress and a great artist who had an enormous curiosity about working with many directors with different styles.”

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In this case, however, the proposed partnership seemed an unlikely one. What could a neorealist director, who favored working with non-actors, do with a talented top movie star who, by her own confession, could say only “ti amo” in Italian?

Rossellini found his inspiration one day while driving past a refugee camp, where women from northern European countries lined up along a barbed wire fence. The director stopped to observe and the guard motioned him away—but not before a Latvian woman, with a look of “mute intense despair” seized his arm. When Rossellini returned to the camp with a pass, he discovered that the mysterious woman had married a soldier and left to live in the Lipari islands.

As he replied in a letter to Bergman, “I tried to imagine the life of the Latvian girl, so tall, so fair, in this island of fire and ashes, amidst the fishermen, small and swarthy, amongst the women with the glowing eyes.” His vision for Stromboli, the first of 5 films he’d make with Bergman, was born out of this chance encounter.

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Shortly after Bergman travelled to Italy, Rossellini and his then-married star became lovers. Bergman’s resulting divorce from Petter Lindström and her pregnancy outside of marriage ignited gossip columns and outraged the American public.

The affair destroyed Bergman’s image of ethereal, on-a-pedestal purity and stirred up prejudices still rankling from WWII. As Isabella Rossellini noted, “The idea that she fell in love with an Italian, from a country that 5 years before had been America’s enemy, that shocked people.”

Bergman’s Swedish nationality made her an easy target, according to her daughter: “She was already a foreigner and Americans tend to distrust foreigners…. The Senate took a position against my mother, saying that foreigners who came to live and work in America, since Hollywood could have such a phenomenal effect on someone’s success, needed to be under moral control.”

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While the American press gloated over the fall of an angelic icon, Bergman had more pressing challenges. Like the character she plays in Stromboli—Karen, an urbane Lithuanian bound to a primitive culture by a marriage of desperation—Bergman was ill-prepared for tribulations of life on a rugged Mediterranean island.

Bergman “was used to sets with very specialized crews, hundreds of people, but they made Stromboli with about 15 people who all carried the equipment,” Rossellini says.

Fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of the arduous production exists, thanks to one of Bergman’s hobbies: “She made little home movies for herself, and we see that everyone carried these heavy burdens, for example, to the top of the volcano.” (You can watch snippets shot by Bergman’s camera on YouTube courtesy of the Criterion Collection.)

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The actress also had to adapt her technique to a cinematic style—and cast—very different to what she was accustomed to. As her daughter said, “Mama found herself without Cary Grant, without Spencer Tracy, with a fisherman that Papa picked!”

“If Papa needed a fisherman, he got a fisherman,” Rossellini explained. “A real fisherman will have the gestures, the sunburned face, the authenticity you’d never get with an actor.”

In the starkly sensual Stromboli, Bergman’s conflicted, expertly communicated emotions set her apart from the borderline awkward naturalism of the other cast members. This contrast, far from a drawback, contributes beautifully to the film, since Karen rebels against, and is largely rejected by, the island’s benighted world.

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To achieve the improvisational feel he sought, Rossellini had to work around his non-actors’ unease. As his daughter told her audience at the Cinémathèque, “Italian films are often dubbed, so you don’t have to know your lines. My father would direct by saying, ‘There’s a scene where you come in for lunch and people are sitting down, so act like you would in real life. Say “Hello, goodbye, how are you, and so on.”’

“That was difficult for an actor [Bergman] who was used to learning a text, to having everything written beforehand…. A bigger challenge was that the non-actors were extremely intimidated by the camera and wouldn’t speak. Instead of saying, ‘Hello. How are you? Have a seat,” they’d stand there frozen with terror.

“So, Papa would say, ‘Listen, it doesn’t matter what you say, because I’m going to dub it afterwards.’ So, Mama would come in and say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and the non-actor would go ‘One-two-three-four-five-six.’”

Describing such odd “dialogue,” Isabella Rossellini laughed, “Rossellini’s realism was just on the screen, because if you visited the set, it was surrealism!” (To be fair, though, I think most of us would freeze up in the radiant presence of Ingrid Bergman.)

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Though lauded as a epiphanic neorealist masterwork today, Stromboli flopped at the box office in 1950—despite all of the inflammatory free publicity. However, “the French recognized that a film that didn’t work at the box office, that didn’t sell a lot of tickets, could be an important film.”

Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois in particular saw the genius in Rossellini’s work and was a good friend of the director’s family. Isabella shared an amusing personal reminiscence of Henri Langlois and his wife as somewhat, ahem, fragrant and unwashed bohemians: “My mother and father would say, ‘Isabella, you mustn’t say that they smell bad. Shush!’”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cinephiles bred by the Cinémathèque would latch onto Stromboli and the other Bergman-Rossellini collaborations as examples of the kind of personal, documentary-style cinema they respected. “My father was more of a director who’d influenced other directors than a box office success,” Rossellini recalled. “It was Cahiers du Cinéma that rediscovered my parents’ movies.”

Roberto Rossellini returned the favor by becoming a mentor to the future Nouvelle Vague directors: “When I saw Godard three or four years ago, he told me, ‘Your father was kind of a like an uncle to me. He said, “Why be a critic? Why not make your own movies?”’ So my father also encouraged Truffaut and Godard—when they were movie critics—to make films.”

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When her father passed away in 1977, Rossellini’s family received a touching tribute from Godard: “the most moving telegram I’ve ever gotten. He wrote, ‘We are alone in the woods.’ Because my father was such a patriarch. He was my dad, but he was also the Taviani brothers’ and Godard’s father in a way.”

The Taviani brothers paid tribute to Roberto Rossellini somewhat differently: by offering Isabella her first significant film role, in Il Prato (1979). Remembering Rossellini’s objections to movie careers for his children, “I thought, ‘Dad’s going to turn over in his grave. He would be furious. He gave the Tavianis a prize and now they want me to act for them.’”

But Ingrid Bergman urged her daughter to accept the offer. “My mom came in and said, ‘No, you have to take advantage of this. It’s an adventure. You can’t turn up this chance to try to be an actress. And, in any case, they work in your father’s style, with non-actors, so you’re not going to be an actress…. You’ll have an experience with great artists.’”

The diverging opinions on Isabella’s acting career were typical of Bergman and Rossellini, a striking case of “opposites attract.” She was introverted and methodical. He was outgoing and unpredictable.

“My father was infinitely disorganized,” Rossellini said. “He was Italian, so we don’t have very many of his things left. My mother was Swedish—and infinitely organized. She saved every letter, every photo, every film poster.”

At one of the most poignant moments of her interview, Isabella Rossellini revealed the insight that motivated her mother’s methodical collecting. “I remember when my mother was sick, she had cancer, there was a big room where she was storing all these things. Mama was very humble, very simple, and extremely shy. I said, ‘Why did you keep all this? You were born in Sweden, you went to America, then you went to Italy, then you went to live in France… why did you drag all of these photos, all of these letters, all of these newspaper clippings with you?’

“She gave me a response that totally shocked me. She said, ‘Because I’ve always known that my life as an artist was very important.’

“I was scandalized by this pretension! But she said, “You know, I think that we’re part of the most influential art of the last century. When we were young, we all watched movies as much as we read the great classics. We read the classics in school because we have to, we go to museums from time to time, but everyone goes to the movies and loves the cinema.’”

It’s reassuring to know that Ingrid Bergman recognized her place and significance in cinema history—from Intermezzo to Autumn Sonata, from Casablanca to Stromboli, from Gaslight to Elena and Her Men.

100 years after her birth, Bergman’s versatility, her spontaneity, and her fearless defiance of convention remain as modern as ever. Will we ever quite catch up to this goddess of incandescent contradictions? I doubt it.

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*Please note that all quotations of Isabella Rossellini in this article are my translations.

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9 thoughts on “On the Edge of the Volcano: Isabella Rossellini on Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Stromboli (1950)

  1. Thanks for this. I’m always flabbergasted that Ingrid’s children are not interviewed more about her. They’re the last chance to gain more insight into Ingrid Bergman as a person as opposed to Ingrid Bergman the film star.

  2. I spent many wonderful hours at the Cinémathèque in Paris. For that matter, I spent many hours in all the wonderful independent small cinemas around town all playing their favorite cult classic.

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