“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.'” — Isaiah 65:1
In the year I was born (1950) Roberto Rossellini made an extraordinary film, ‘Stromboli, terra di Dio’ (Stromboli, land of God).
Stromboli is a small island off the coast of Sicily containing an active volcano.
There is a scene in the film where Almadraba tuna is caught by an Andalusian technique of setting nets in a maze that leads to a central pool called “copo”. The tuna get trapped in the central pool because they can’t see the exit through the maze.
On one level the scene captures the ingenuity of the fishermen raised in a harsh environment always overshadowed by the erupting Mt Stromboli.
On another level it defines a dilemma in the life of the film’s central character. Karin is imprisoned in a displaced person’s camp during World War II and marries an Italian POW from an internment camp nearby to escape her confinement.
When they go to his village on Stromboli Karin finds another prison awaits her. She is unable to fit into the traditional village lifestyle.
The villagers are unable to accept this mysterious northerner (played by Ingrid Bergman).
Rossellini’s film is a neorealist film using documentary style to portray a simple narrative. However beneath this simplicity is a metaphor for life’s challenges.
Curiously in the shoot, Rossellini makes sure Karin is always well groomed and never sullied by the volcanic dust endemic to Stromboli.
She finally tries to escape the island and in doing so is confronted by limits of courage and determination. At the climax of the film we see Karin’s personality reduced to year zero.
It seems that the film was misunderstood by the critics and ignored by the public. Bergman manages to convey both horror and awe in her response to the grueling massacre of the magnificent Almadraba tuna — poor creatures outwitted by men.
Think about this scene next time you have sushi.
The trapping of the tuna shows an ancient collective ritual of food gathering with fishermen singing and giving thanks for the food that they catch. Karin is appalled by the primitive method and by the cruelty of it. An eruption of the volcano drives her to flee the island while the villagers patiently await calm on fishing boats offshore.
Karin, pregnant, seeks to escape this new prison by walking over the summit of Mt Stromboli to a boat that will give her passage out of a life which has become a nightmare.
In the American version of ‘Stromboli’, Karin dutifully returns to her husband.
However, in the director’s cut, Rossellini leaves the finale open-ended trying to impress on the audience that it is a film about Karin’s journey about her recovery from a brutal war, acceptance and faith in a new beginning. Karin reaches an epiphany on the peak of Mt Stromboli. It is not important if she returns or goes on alone, what is important is that she discovers faith in herself.
Karin had tried desperately to extricate herself from the conservatism of village life, at one stage beseeching the local priest who rebuked her as a sinner to be pitied.
They came like passing clouds
mother and child,
drifting before the moon,
lingering intangible angels.
Sudden lighting flash!
Gone for good.
Leaving love lost in rain;
still glad they came
between the devil and the deep blue sea,
made small by war on the horizon
Still walkin’ on love street,
no longer live here
once a pretence
to beat the parking fines.
No living, no touching
on this street.
with sorrowful eyes
stood before the boy
inside the man.
Walking for the station
with sweet child
in his arms,
trying so cool
what could not say
Oh, his name it is nothing,
friendship over before it began
now left with this song
so thin to air
silence so long to bare
surely not fair,
but only, only
if she does care.
But then who is old
And what is young
woman from man?
20 Sept 2012
“My Voyage to Italy” by Martin Scorcese
[*Rossellini and Bergman had a child, Robin Rossellini, in the year the film was released (RR is my age). This caused a scandal in the US and in Europe because they were both married to other partners. Bergman was unable to work in Hollywood for some years after because of the hypocrisy and conservatism of movie moguls at RKO. Bergman and Rossellini had twins girls in 1952, Ingrid and Isobella (herself a famous actor). Isobella married Martin Scorcese. Martin Scorcese made a definitive retrospective of Italian films in Il mio viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy). He describes how Howard Hughes who owned the rights to Stromboli changed the final scene assuring audiences that Karin returns to her husband.]