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.

From Naples to Hollywood (and Back): At TCMFF, Sophia Loren Reflects on Her Vibrant Career

sophiamarriageIt’s hard to imagine a time when Sophia Loren wouldn’t have been considered a dazzling beauty. However, at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood for TCM Classic Film Festival, Loren harkened back to her early days as an actress—and her disastrous first screentest.

In an extended interview with her son, director Edoardo Ponti, Loren recalled, “They put a cigarette in my mouth, so I started to cough like hell.”

Looking at the test footage, the cameraman gave a grim appraisal of Loren’s future in films: “She has a long nose. She has a big mouth. And she doesn’t know how to act.”

Loren was ready to give up and go home, but her mentor and future husband, producer Carlo Ponti, convinced her to keep trying, for which we can all be grateful.

More than 20 years the starlet’s senior, Ponti brought hope and stability into her life after a bleak childhood. “He was a very sensitive person,” Loren said. “I think he had a nice smile. I found great comfort in him.” Even today, Loren feels that he remains with her in spirit. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do, sometimes I have problems. I think of him and I don’t feel alone.”

Contrary to popular belief, though, Ponti did not rechristen Sophia Scicolone as Sophia Loren. She set the record straight; it was another producer, Goffredo Lombardo, who came up with her screen name. “He was doing a picture, Africa Under the Sea, and he said, ‘Look, Sophia Cicolone I don’t like. We have to change the name, because I like you, you look good in a bathing suit…’”

Greeted by a chorus of laughter from the audience at the Montalban, Loren paused, shrugged, and acknowledged her deservedly lauded figure: “It helps.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Flipping through a dictionary, Lombardo searched for words with a similar sound to the name of an actress he liked. Coren… Soren… Loren!

Her big break came with Aïda (1953), a lavish film adaptation of Verdi’s opera. The movie placed unusual demands on Loren, who more or less fell into the role to replace an American actress. Painted from head-to-toe to play an African princess, Loren acted in tune with a pre-recorded score—and had to put in extra practice to learn every beat of the music, including several famous arias.

She recalled, “For at least 2 months I was in a little room trying to sing the lipsynch of [the celebrated soprano] Renata Tebaldi, every day, all day, and then I did it.” Because the soundstages were cold in winter, crew members had to use hairdryers to eliminate the visible breath emanating from the star’s open mouth!

How did Loren feel about the results? “It’s great. It looks like I am singing!” At the Montalban, when Edoardo asked his mother, “Were you singing a little bit?” he got an incredulous response: “Ma tu sei pazzo?” Are you crazy?

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“Ma tu sei pazzo?” Sophia Loren and son Edoardo Ponti at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

The following year, in 1954, Loren began her collaboration with Vittorio De Sica, the director who would shape her greatest screen performances. She remembered her makeup man introducing her to De Sica at Cinecittà, warning, “She’s a wonderful girl. She’s very young, Vittorio. She’s very, very young.”

Thus reminded to remain a gentleman, De Sica suggested that Loren do a screentest for his next production, an episodic film set in Naples. Remembering her earlier experience, she baulked. “I started to take away the possibility of doing L’oro di Napoli, because I didn’t want to do a test,” Loren said.

Undeterred, De Sica invited Loren to visit his studio, where he discussed the role with her and decided to cast her without a test. “You leave tomorrow for Naples,” he told her.

A great actor as well as director, De Sica performed for his cast even when working behind the camera. Loren recalled, “Every director has a way of showing [what he wants] to an actor, with words sometimes, with gestures sometimes. For him, it was acting, from A to Z, little actors, big actors, a man, a woman… He would act the scene for everybody.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Some actors would no doubt bristle at a director showing them how to play their part, but Loren appreciated seeing how De Sica would act out her character: “That’s the way he felt that he could give some truth to the scene. So I learned from him. I was always in a lesson with him.”

Loren found plenty in De Sica’s directorial acting to emulate and ultimately make her own. She confided, “I like to steal—Naples, you know—I like to steal good things, the kind of things that make you grow.”

When asked what she “stole” from De Sica, she replied with one word: “naturalezza” or naturalness.

Like many screen legends, Loren honed her craft as an actress as she climbed the ladder of stardom—without studying acting in a traditional sense. Edoardo wondered whether the lack of formal training ever undermined her confidence. “Well, I felt insecure because I didn’t go to the actors’ studio, but I see so many people that did go to the actors’ studio who are more insecure than I am! Now I don’t feel insecure, because I learned from life… I learned to read the minds of people, to read the mind of the character I am playing.”

In the mid-1950s, she found herself increasingly in demand. When Loren met Suso Checchi D’Amato, then working on a script called Too Bad She’s Bad, on a train, the screenwriter mentioned a perfect part for her: an alluring thief who falls in love with the taxi driver she cons.

toobadshesbadAlthough the 19-year-old Loren had fun “playing the star” and telling D’Amato to see if Ponti could “fit your project into my schedule,” the movie turned out to be a personal and professional milestone. “It was really my first film where I had to open up and really show to people the little things I was learning.”

Too Bad She’s Bad (1954) also paired Loren with Marcello Mastroianni for the first time. From the moment she met Mastroianni on the set they were immediately simpatico. “Since I saw him, it was like he was my old friend. He was a gentle person.”

Their friendship was based on two things, according to Loren: “sense of humor and food.” The latter sounds like Mastroianni’s favorite subject. “When he came on the set in the morning the first thing he said wasn’t, ‘Come stai, Sophia?’ No. ‘Cosa mangerai stasera?’ What are you going to eat tonight?”

At the TCL Chinese Theater, when Ben Mankiewicz asked Loren if she and Mastroianni worked on their onscreen chemistry, she replied, “I don’t think you can work on chemistry. There is or there isn’t. So, as soon as I saw Marcello, there is.”

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Audiences felt the rapport, too, and a new screen team was formed. “When the film came out it was so successful that other writers started writing other things for us both, always for comedies, though, in the beginning.”

After Loren’s string of Italian hits in the 1950s, Hollywood beckoned, and Ponti offered her the opportunity to break the language barrier and prepare to enchant new audiences. She shared an anecdote that revealed the producer’s determination. Loren received a telegram stating, “‘Tomorrow you start learning English.’” As she was mulling the idea over, she reported, “The door rang—that was my teacher!”

Loren’s first English-language film, The Pride and the Passion (1957), entailed a 6-month shoot in Spain and sparked the actress’s legendary romance with Cary Grant. However, they didn’t exactly start off on the right foot.

“Cary Grant was being very funny, because he mixed my name up with Gina Lollobrigida. So, I went to him and I said, ‘If you keep on doing that, I’m leaving.” While making his apology, “He looked into my eyes and he was stuck. That’s all.”

Listening to stories about his mother and Grant, Eduardo Ponti got one of the biggest laughs of the day: “I have a bittersweet feeling about Cary Grant: sweet, because he’s somebody who meant a lot to you, bitter because my birth was threatened.” You know, I can’t really blame him.

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Who could turn down Cary Grant? Well, Loren explained that it wasn’t Grant so much as a break with her life in Italy that she was resisting: “I think that with Carlo [Ponti] I had found a kind of calm, a kind of tranquility. He came from Italy… I was afraid to change so quickly in my life and go to America.”

Knowing that her future as an artist, not merely a star, resided in her native country, Loren went home. Although she didn’t seem to find her English-language films particularly fulfilling, she confessed her fondness for a few: “I’ve done things that sometimes I thought were okay, like the picture I did with Cary, Houseboat, and then also a film I did, The Key with Carol Reed.”

twowomenIn 1960, Loren gave her most acclaimed performance in Two Women, as a mother struggling to help her daughter survive in wartorn Italy, again directed by De Sica. Initially slated to play the daughter, Loren ended up in the role of the mother after Anna Magnani turned it down—but suggested rewriting the script to feature Sophia as the older lead.

The artistic triumph emerged from a grueling production, leading up to the horrifying church rape scene. “I spent nights and nights and nights without sleep,” Loren said. “When the day came, we did a rehearsal and then we started shooting.

“On the first [take], De Sica said, “Print!” I said, ‘Don’t we do another one?’ He said, ‘No, we won’t do another one.’ All the scenes from that moment on until the end De Sica never did it twice.”

The one-take method made Loren nervous, “I was so preoccupied and I said, ‘My god, it will be terrible and and I will have to do the same thing [again]… he said, ‘No, you could never do it better. Shut up.’”

De Sica was right, as Loren learned on Oscar night when she became the first actor ever to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language performance.

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Ben Mankiewicz looks adorably starstruck in the presence of Sophia Loren before their interview at the TCL Chinese Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

At the TCL Chinese Theater, the day after her interview at the Montalban, Loren recounted how she received the word of her victory. Seized by the jitters, Loren had decided not to attend the ceremony, thinking, “I will stay in Rome, because if I win, I’m going to faint. If I faint in my own house, then it’s fine. Nobody sees me. If I faint on the stage, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Instead, Loren and Ponti enjoyed a quiet night at home. The clock ticked by, past the time when the winner was supposed to have been announced. Assuming that no news was bad news, the couple headed up to bed.

“At that moment,” Loren told the packed crowd at the Chinese Theater, “the telephone rang. I said, ‘Hello? Pronto? Chi è?”

What she heard at the other end is probably the best thing anyone has ever heard in the history of phones: “It’s Cary Grant. You won!”

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Marriage Italian Style (1964) reunited Loren with De Sica and her frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni. One of Loren’s favorites in her filmography, the bawdy, beloved dramedy allowed the actress to prove her talent to a surprising critic: her mother.

“Even though after a while I started to be in movies and they were giving me already good roles, one time we were looking at the television and there was a lady called Regina Bianchi, ah, mi ricordo… and she was doing Marriage Italian Style. My mother, because she was very natural, sometimes she could say things that could hurt you a lot.

“So, I said, ‘Maybe Carlo would like to do Marriage Italian Style.’ And she looked at the television and she said, ‘But you could never do it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because she’s so good.’”

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Perhaps Bianchi was good, but Loren is “a cinematic event” in Marriage Italian Style, to borrow Ben Mankiewicz’s description. Amazed by Loren’s walk in a certain iconic scene, Mankiewicz began, “When you walk, just walk in a movie—”

“I dance,” Loren aptly finished the sentence. “I walked like that because there was music underneath, so I had to do a double step, and I enjoyed it very much.”

Loren cherished the part of Filumena, a prostitute who longs for a loving marriage with her keeper of 20 years, for its range of emotion. “It’s a beautiful role for a woman. You can cry, you can laugh, but the tragedy of the woman at that time is always there.”

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Marriage Italian Style also captures the beauty and vitality of Loren’s heritage in Naples. “I think I owe everything to [being] Neapolitan,” She reflected. “Every kind of picture that I’ve done with De Sica, the source was always Naples in a way.”

What else is there to say? Grazie, Naples. E grazie, Sophia.

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A Reel Diva: Assunta Spina (1915)

bertini“It had been my idea to wander around Naples taking ordinary people from the streets. Now everyone’s invented Neorealism! The real Neorealist film is Assunta Spinta!” —Francesca Bertini in 1982

In her nineties, Francesca Bertini, the first great star of the Italian cinema, seemed like the kind of woman who’d slap Norma Desmond and tell her to get a grip. Beyond the trappings of her wealth and fame—the designer dress, the lacquered nails, the perfectly coiffed hair—La Bertini radiated every bit as much vitality and trenchant perceptiveness as she’d exhibited onscreen in the 1910s.

No self-doubt, no pandering humility, not a trace of maudlin auto-elegy crept into her brisk demeanor as she faced down cameramen in the early 1980s—advising them on how to shoot her for a documentary. Telling men sixty years her junior to “Get with it!” she berated film archivists for not transferring nitrate originals of her films onto prints that could be exhibited. She expressed her wish that her work be shared with a younger generation through television. She was the sort of woman who, when she told you she was The Greatest That Ever Lived, you wouldn’t question the fact.

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One look at Bertini at any age and you’d know: this is a goddess. A diva. A woman demands and deserves to be respected, obeyed, worshipped. An actress, an intellect, a force to be reckoned with.

At the height of her fame, Bertini owned a production company and handpicked her roles. When she made Assunta Spina in 1915, she was the highest-paid woman in the world—even Mary Pickford didn’t make as much then.

The strengths Bertini projected in her roles were far from celluloid charades. The passion, the grandeur, the ferocity you witness in her surviving films must have blazed forth from her soul, for these qualities continued to illuminate the diva from within—even when her body grew as frail as a paper lantern.

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Francesca Bertini in 1982

Bertini’s creativity and resolution brought her best-remembered movie, Assunta Spina, into being. While walking through Naples one day, it occurred to her that the story of Salvatore di Giacomo’s famous play would translate ideally to the screen with its colorful scenes of working-class romance and betrayal. Bertini contacted di Giacomo who gave her his blessing to film an adaptation.

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I cannot overstate the importance of this film—and of Bertini as its auteur. With some help from her leading man, Gustavo Serena, she directed the film. She collaborated on the screenplay. She corralled ordinary Neapolitans to appear onscreen and infuse the film with an authentic flavor. She insisted on authentic locations wherever possible. To watch Assunta Spina is to witness neorealism being born—decades before anyone spoke of neorealism.

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Real policemen escort actor Gustavo Serena down a real Neapolitan street

Unlike the colossal period films or sophisticated melodramas that dominated early Italian cinema, Assunta Spina has dirt under its fingernails. This peasant dance of violence and perversity stabs right to the heart of what Italy really was in the 1910s: a place where corruption, monotonous poverty, and primitive codes of honor constricted the pursuit of happiness (especially the happiness of women) like a sweaty corset.

This sordid tale revolves around Assunta, a spirited young woman who runs a laundry. She loves Michele, a simple butcher, but her flirtatious nature and sensual obstinacy inflame his jealousy. The fact that Assunta’s spurned suitor has been anonymously accusing her of infidelity doesn’t help. About to be married, Assunta dances with another man in defiance of Michele’s hotheadedness.

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He responds with a typically grisly manifestation of Italian machismo and slashes her face with a knife. In spite of Michele’s brutality, Assunta defends him at his trial, in vain. Desperate to keep Michele in Naples, even if he’s behind bars, Assunta agrees to become the mistress of Don Frederigo, an unscrupulous politico. (That’s Italy, folks.)

But what’s going to happen when Michele wins his release and finds out? Nothing warm and fuzzy, I assure you.

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Assunta Spina opens with a shot of the Bay of Naples, white buildings gleaming and water rippling. Then, slowly, a dissolve makes a striking woman in white materialize out of thin air onto one of the docks.

A shawl wrapped around her shoulders, she looks into the distance, as if foreseeing the tragedy in her future. The figure turns to the camera and looks practically at the audience, before slowly pivoting away.

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Out of context in terms of plot, this lilting yet vaguely tense shot testifies to the power of Bertini’s presence. With hardly a motion and, of course, no words, she conveys that all we need to know about Assunta—a woman of unexpected depth, a troubled low-caste beauty, a part of Naples just as much as the sea and the sun.

Like some of the best neorealist films (Bicycle Thieves comes to mind), Assunta Spina can sustain mildly surreal touches such as that dissolve… before veering back to gutter realism. After all, isn’t life like that too? Don’t we find that the surfaces of our daily existence serve as mirrors for what’s going on in our souls? For instance, Michele’s “Bucheria” (“Butcher’s Shop”) sign looms prominently in the background as his jealousy flares up and foreshadows his act of unthinkable hate against the woman he loves.

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Assunta’s strangely distorted and warped reflection in the door of her laundry elegantly conveys her divided loyalties.

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These symbolic hints, rather than diminishing the documentary importance of Assunta Spina, elevate the film as a whole. These psychological insights teased from quotidian existence demonstrate that, as André Bazin would later suggest, realism can coexist with more metaphysical and spiritual explorations of humanity.

Cameraman Alberto G. Carta, who worked with Bertini on her most acclaimed vehicles, including Tosca, Lady of the Camellias, and two versions of Odette, imbued Assunta Spina with an ominous lyricism. Naples street scenes take on a jagged, fragmented look in contrast to the all-engulfing skies of sequences near the Bay.

Negative space, dead space often gobbles up most of the screen as we struggle to look at the main characters—taking up only a small segment of frame in a long or medium long shot.

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The lack of close shots in the film reflects Bertini’s belief that they distract from the drama of the moment and can actually prove disruptive to the audience’s identification. Admittedly, I don’t think that close-ups had acquired a truly important place in Italian cinema at that time. Even so, the decision to keep editing to a minimum and to allow scenes to unfold in long takes enhances the realistic ambiance of the work: undivided space, unabbreviated time.

Cutting doesn’t micromanage or pre-digest the performances, which inhabit and fill each long take with searing drama. For the most part, the audience must dwell with the characters in real time (apart from the occasional cut or intertitle) and scan the screen for signs of rising tempers and escalating grudges.

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More importantly, Carta’s camerawork emphasizes a certain pattern in staging. This film’s visual refrain consists of variations on the image of Assunta in the foreground with a man—whether her lover, her spurned suitor, or her “protector”—standing sinisterly in the background.

Not only does this recurrent compositional choice create suspense and tension within a single frame, but it also suggests the theme of a woman haunted and threatened by unappreciative and predatory men.

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(See Raffaele in between Assunta and her father here?)

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And yet, Assunta Spinta does not linger on a “women’s weepie” tale of victimization as much as it traces a tough proto-feminist narrative. This flawed but enduring woman possesses more positive traits than any of the men in her life. She bravely lives down the consequences of the tragedy that unfolds around her and shows agency in her struggle to respect the one man she truly cares about.

The men who hover around Assunta seem at times like exteriorizations of her inner anguish. Like furies, they torment her and give her no peace. Each man serves to bring out a different facet of her personality: the tender bride-to-be with Michele, the coquette with Raffaele, and the femme fatale with Frederigo.

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One woman, three personas: with Michele…

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…with Raffaele…

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.54.09 PM…and with Don Frederigo

Whereas her different admirers possess rather one-track motivations, Assunta’s multi-layered psyche defies you to interpret her. Bertini’s earthy, beguiling performance eschews all neurotic hand-wringing while conveying the enigmatic, passionate nature of her character.

Why does Assunta form emotional bonds with men who hurt and use her? Why does she play with men’s affections? We receive no clear answer; affection, love, physical attraction, preconceived notions about martyrdom, the desire for sexual power, and the hope for a happy home all compete within her.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.38.43 PMThis visual motif of men in the background while Assunta silently wrestles with herself in the foreground also provides some of the most oddly composed shots in the film. Characters stand too close or too far from the camera for comfort, as though distant slices of reality were stacked on top of each other.

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It’s almost as though these men are just figments of her imagination—they exist only by virtue of their relationships with her. Unlike films that try to capture “a woman’s world” or some such hermetically-sealed cliché, Assunta Spinta gives us reality as a woman and a woman as reality. Admittedly, that sounds like a paradox: how can a single person represent reality? Wouldn’t that be allegory, sort of the opposite of realism?

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At the risk of generalizing, I would argue that, whereas narratives revolving around men tend to be goal-oriented, narratives about women often seek to unlock the truth of social conditions. Even the fact that Assunta’s body is made to feel and carry the signs of her ordeal—being scarred by the man she loves, forced to surrender her virtue to a slimy Don—links her as a character directly to irrefutable impact of her suffering, to the empirical evidence of poverty and abuse.

Reality leaves its mark on her, inside and out.

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Assunta, marginalized and forsaken

Moreover, the film’s intense attention to the textures of slum life somehow seems to echo Assunta’s own unflinching ability to size up a situation.

When Michele slashes her cheek, for instance, she immediately calls for a mirror. This scene didn’t exist in the play or the book. Bertini added it. She understood that this woman needs to see. Neither we, the viewers, nor Assunta herself can look away from the collision course of her sad destiny.

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Much of the movie consists of shots of Assunta simply sitting or standing, mulling something over. Her internal world—not one of imagination and fantasy, but of grim decisions and common sense—is echoed in the grime and roughness of Neapolitan streets and the ironic whiteness and bustle of Assunta’s laundry.

I once saw an old religious painting (I can’t for the life of me remember its title, shame on me) where one of the people in the composition is staring off into space but, from the expression on his face, the viewer immediately comes to the conclusion that the figure is somehow seeing the entire scene within himself. We perceive the connection between Assunta and reality through a similar intuition.

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In fact, she delivers the most important “line” of the film, at the very end, mostly offscreen. As she’s led away while the camera lingers on the empty set—as though the realism of the scene speaks for her, as if its textures had absorbed her, imbibed her. As if she were the environment and the environment was the most eloquent possible elegy for her.

The subtle psychological probing of the film, coupled with its insistence on verisimilitude (real locations, non-actors, dialect, an immersion into Neapolitan culture), make it a potent forerunner of post-WWII art cinema.

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And through it all, Bertini owns the screen. The cinema is her home, her country, her fiefdom. The camera was infatuated with this firestorm of a woman whose naturalistic, yet vividly theatrical style must have been to the 1910s what Magnani’s exothermic charisma became to a later generation. So many Method-like details combine to produce a believable human being—not an actor—before us.

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The way she pops a piece of bread into her mouth and chews it disdainfully. The way her hand clings to the side of a wall as she begs a man not to desert her. The way she can’t bear to look at Michele as she confesses what she did to keep him close to her. The dignified honesty of her every movement justifies why she was not only one of the cinema’s first great stars, but also one of its first great artists.

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If you appreciate the hardboiled poetry of Neorealism, make a point of tracking down Assunta Spina. Kino’s edition comes with a documentary on Bertini, L’Ultima Diva, in which she, in her nineties, sits down with interviewers, watches Assunta Spina, and offers, basically, a commentary track on her masterpiece. Listening to someone provide a minute-by-minute explanation of movie’s production a century ago—can you imagine a better portal into film history? And Bertini’s vibrant descriptions and blunt opinions revive this key moment in cinema’s development.

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She was the godmother of Neorealism, the idol of an era, and one of the most versatile, sublime women to electrify the screen. And she knew it, too.

Now, that’s a diva.

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I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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