' Cinema Romantico: Where Have You Gone Ingrid Bergman?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Where Have You Gone Ingrid Bergman?

There are many reasons why thus far I’m in love with the city of Chicago. And last night another reason vaulted to a spot very near the top of the list. Last night I was able to watch "Stromboli", one of my 3 favorite Ingrid Bergman movies, on the big screen………with a beer. THAT’S a reason, ladies and gentlemen.

As my love for old movies has grown, so has my love for Ingrid Bergman. I came to her through the old warhorse “Casablanca” but it’s her complex portrayal of the conflicted spy in Hitchcock’s “Notorious” and her turn as the torn spouse in “Stromboli" that set her apart.

“Stromboli” was the first of a wave of the so-called Italian neo-realism films. Not realism in the sense they feel precisely real and authentic (hence the scene in which the svelte Bergman is hiking an active volcano in her sundress but never mind) but in the sense they shunned filming on sets for actual locations. That practice is now commonplace but a huge step forward in the 40’s.

Right after World War II, Bergman is living in a refugee camp and agrees to marry an Italian solider in order to leave the camp. The couple then returns to the soldier’s hometown, the island of Stromboli where she finds a rigid life and no acceptance from the locals which leads to her planning escape.

All this is the so-called plot but really the plot is just a way of letting the dear Ms. Bergman give a tour-de-force performance that belongs in the annals of the finest cinema has produced. Seeing the film for a 3rd time on Tuesday night allowed me to wallow specifically in her acting and not have to concern myself quite as much with the story. For instance, when the “happy” couple is married watch Bergman’s face closely – her expressions are restrained almost to the point of being non-existent but at the same time you can see the anguish and the crisis of conscience. I will argue strenuously this is one of the moments that bridged the gap between the over-emoting of early actresses to the more subtle acting of more contemporary actresses. She wasn’t necessarily the first, but she was among them and perhaps the best.

There are scenes in which the camera tracks with Bergman – never cutting – and just watches her. There’s no place for her to hide, as so many films do in this day and age. But maybe most notable is the scene in which she visits the priest to, apparently, ask for help in getting off the island. The scene lasts, maybe, four minutes but it watches her go through – as Kramer would say – “a full palette of emotion”. The writing leads her on the journey but she has to convince us. And she does.

Hovering in the background is the island’s always active volcano. The volcano works as That Which I Normally Don’t Speak Of (i.e. symbolism). Maybe it’s just me but it seems the Europeans are much more adept at handling symbolism in films than Americans. We prefer to bash people over the head with our symbolism, reinforcing the point we want to make for fear our audience is too stupid to understand what’s going on whereas in “Stromboli” the volcano simply enhances Ingrid Bergman’s plight.

We all know the volcano is going to blow but before it does we see a scene in which Bergman’s fisherman husband and the rest of his motley fishing crew reel in fish after fish, killing them right there on screen – or so it appears. And then the volcano blows. This is the film showing us man terrorizing nature and then nature terrorizing man. But instead of learning anything man winds up terrorizing man, man turns on himself, and it all ends where so many of our personal episodes do (well, at least where mine end up) – screaming at God. In the hands of a modern-day performer this scene probably sinks. But with Bergman it rises to the level of mythic.

I urge you to get to know this Ingrid Bergman better – it’ll be good for you.

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