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New DVD: Rossellini and Bergman’s break from tradition

By Dave Kehr
New York Times
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CRITERION COLLECTION - NYT
Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy” (1954), one of three collaborations between Bergman and Rossellini released in September 2013 in a new Criterion Collection set.

Ingrid Bergman’s decision to leave behind both Hollywood and her husband, Petter Lindstrom, to make a low-budget film in Italy with the most audacious filmmaker of the day touched off shock and outrage in the American press.

“In the 10 days since she bore a son to film director Roberto Rossellini in Rome, actress Ingrid Bergman has become the center of a spirited controversy,” The New York Times noted on Feb. 12, 1950. That the boy, Renato, was born out of wedlock only increased the furor.

Although Bergman and Rossellini were married soon after, theater owners in 12 states vowed to show no more of their films, church and women’s groups called for boycotts, and Sen. Edwin Johnson, D-Colo., denounced Bergman on the floor of Congress as “a powerful influence for evil” as he tried to introduce a bill requiring the federal licensing of actors, producers and distributors. The Georgia state Senate passed a resolution banning “Stromboli,” the film Bergman and Rossellini had made together; The Times reported that similar measures were progressing through the legislatures in Texas and South Carolina.

New York exhibitors, though, tried to exploit the film’s notoriety by opening “Stromboli” on 120 screens, plainly hoping to cash in before the word got out that the film was, in fact, a work of great ethical seriousness and profound religious feeling – or, as Bosley Crowther, the Times’ chief film critic described it, “incredibly feeble, inarticulate, uninspiring and painfully banal.”

The scandal has long been forgotten, but “Stromboli” – which has been reissued in a superb Criterion Collection edition, along with two other Bergman-Rossellini films, “Europe ’51” (1952) and “Journey to Italy” (1954) – now stands as one of the pioneering works of modern European filmmaking. (The Criterion Collection; Blu-ray and DVD editions, both $99.95; not rated.)

The “strange listlessness and incoherence” that Crowther went on to object to represents a studied reaction to the “well made” movie of the day: the rhythms of “Stromboli” are no longer those of tension and release, of peaks and valleys; its characters no longer the psychologically coherent and clearly motivated figures of popular fiction; its narrative no longer the closed, symmetrical structure of the three-act play.

Instead, “Stromboli” opens the door to the ambivalent and the unknowable – an opening that would be expanded by “Europa ’51” and finally flung wide by “Journey to Italy.” Through that door came Bresson, Bergman and Antonioni, later to be joined by Godard, Oshima and Cassavetes.

Though no single artist, and certainly no single work, can ever be counted the sole source of an aesthetic revolution, it is hard to imagine the contemporary art cinema without Rossellini. He may not have been the first to point the way, but he was certainly the first to take the heat.

Although Bergman and Rossellini made five features together (as well as the delightful comic short “The Chicken,” which Criterion has included among the company’s usual copious extras), these three films have come to be considered a sort of trilogy. (The fourth, “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” is a filmed record of a theatrical performance; the fifth and final, “Fear,” is flawed but still of interest, and can be seen on Criterion’s Hulu Plus streaming site.)

Back in 1950, a Times correspondent contacted the Vatican’s film office, in what must have been the certain expectation of a juicy quote condemning “Stromboli.” Instead, the anonymous reporter wrote: “They expressed surprise when told that Miss Bergman’s films had been banned in some American cities. The Catholic censors’ criterion in judging a film, they said, is solely whether its contents are in keeping with high moral standards; the private lives of actors and actresses are not a factor.”

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