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In 1948, when Ingrid Bergman wrote to Roberto Rossellini offering him the services of “a Swedish actress who speaks English very well,” she was one of the most admired, most successful, and most highly paid actresses in the world, after a run of films in Hollywood that included Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946) and that brought her three Oscar nominations for best actress (and a win for her performance in 1944’s Gaslight). Rossellini was also at the pinnacle of his fame, based on the international acclaim for his first two postwar features, Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), seminal works of Italian neorealism and the films that inspired Bergman to contact him. But the films that he would make with Bergman would differ sharply from the ones that had aroused her enthusiasm. In the five features they did together over five years, he revolutionized both his own way of working and the cinema itself. In the process, he turned himself and his new star—who would also become his wife—into cinematic outcasts. Bergman would ultimately be accepted back into the public’s—and the critics’—good graces with open arms. Rossellini lost almost all the recognition he had won—except among a band of young French enthusiasts, whom he decisively inspired. Blamed doubly for dragging Bergman into his schemes, he subsequently remained an outsider. Perhaps no filmmaker ever faced such hostility for departing from the manner that made his name.
That departure was less thematic or tonal than it was conceptual. For all the ostensible “neorealism” of Rossellini’s postwar movies, they had an overtly theatrical air; even at their most probingly naturalistic, they were marked by the frank emotionalism of actorly expression. Anna Magnani, who, with Rossellini, burst to fame with Rome Open City, may have been an earthy actress, but she was no shrinking violet or blank slate, and neither was her costar, Aldo Fabrizi. Rossellini may have worked with unknown or underemployed actors or, for that matter, complete nonactors, but he got them all to act. He was a melodramatist who framed political decisions, moral crises, and spiritual trials with stirring—and stirred-up—emotional intensity. But when he filmed Ingrid Bergman, his use of the conventions and moods of movie melodrama became self-conscious and reflexive. With Bergman, the idea of melodrama—the commercial cinema, Hollywood cinema—filled his work with the cinematic equivalent of quotation marks. The very subject of their films together—the three Italy-bound features included in this set, as well as Fear and the filmed opera Joan of Arc at the Stake—is her presence in them.
In their first collaboration, Stromboli (1950), Bergman’s character, Karin, the displaced artistic bourgeoise isolated on a culturally backward and depopulated ruin, confronting narrow mores and struggling with volcanic menace and crude physical subsistence, is the double of Bergman herself, the star incongruously adorning the harsh and barren island. Rossellini filmed the clash of imperious glamour and raw nature—and even wrote the actress’s pregnancy (with his child) into the story, framing it as a form of salvation.
Bergman’s adulterous romance with Rossellini and out-of-wedlock maternity made her a target of tabloid hysteria in the United States, and even led to her denunciation in the Senate. Though Rossellini based their next film together, Europe ’51 (1952), in part on the divine madness of Saint Francis (whose story he had filmed just before Stromboli), it was also the tale of an elegant woman of the world whose self-sacrificing devotion left her a pariah.
Europe ’51, set in Rome, is about its own glossiness—the opulent reflections on expensive cars, the glow of a modern building, the gleam of silverware, the play of well-modulated light on Bergman’s coiffure—indeed, about its very Hollywoodishness. The evocation of luxury that’s apparent in its look, the cost of its production, is an essential part of the story. Bergman, in a fancy black coat, walking along the trash-strewn riverbank and entering a ramshackle home, lends a resonant symbolic dimension to her character’s actions. A woman who abandons her comfortable circumstances to live among the poor, who uses her privilege to wander among ruins, must be crazy—and so Bergman seemed to many celebrity-besotted observers.
In Journey to Italy (1954), Rossellini deepened his theme by placing aesthetics at the center. This film features two Hollywood stars; Rossellini adorned both of them, Bergman and George Sanders, with the garb of conspicuous consumption and thrust them into a most unglamorous Italy. It starts with Bergman wearing a leopard coat and Sanders a fine tweed jacket, as they ride in a Bentley through nondescript Italian landscapes where the air is filled with bugs and the roads are clogged with livestock. Their luxury hotel, filled with starlets, is a Hollywood in microcosm—as well as a den of corruption. It’s only the immediate contact with artistic treasures and archeological marvels—and with local religious pageantry—that awakens the luxury-clotted, closed-in woman’s conscience and restores her soul. The movie dramatizes the very act of leaving the studio for the sake of art. What Rossellini did for Bergman—for the actress and, as his movies suggest, for the person—had become his subject, taking her to three different locations—the arid island of Stromboli, the poor part of Rome, and the ruins of Pompeii—as if to strip her of pride, to yoke her to purpose, and to reconstruct her artistic sensibility on moral principles.
The young French critics at Cahiers du cinéma, those who would make the New Wave, found a singular model in these films. Jacques Rivette meant it as high praise when he wrote, in 1955, that they were “more and more exclusively amateur films, home movies.” Jean-Luc Godard later recalled, “Once I had seen Journey to Italy, I knew that, even if I were never to make movies, I could make them.” These future filmmakers had an obsessive self-awareness regarding the intimate impact of the cinema—and, in particular, of sweeping cinematic classicism. Their enthusiasm for the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Max Ophuls, for movies of lavish precision and grand gesture, was matched by a passion for documentary and a desire to film their own experiences with a confessional authenticity. Rossellini proved to them, with the clarity of a mathematical theorem, that the two sides of their cinematic obsession could be brought together—along with an even more radical intimacy, the on-screen exploration of their relationships with their actors at the time of filming.
Rossellini, with his rational humanism, may have been the least cinephilic of the great filmmakers, but in his works with Bergman, he turned to a kind of reflexivity—personal refractions of Hollywood that joined documentary and artifice in a way that simultaneously called attention to both—that made the cinema itself their very subject and broke down the barrier between fiction and reportage, between performance and life. The modern cinema begins here.
Richard Brody is the movie listings editor at the New Yorker, where he writes film reviews, a DVD column, and the blog The Front Row. He is the author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.