“People saw me in Joan of Arc and declared me a saint. I’m not. I’m just a woman, another human being.”
— Ingrid Bergman
One of Hollywood’s most legendary love affairs began with a simple letter. In 1948 Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman had been in Hollywood for less than a decade when she started feeling like her career was going nowhere. She had already won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Gaslight, had starred in one of the most iconic motion pictures of all time (Casablanca), and had worked with some of the industry’s greatest filmmakers.
She was under contract with ruthless producer David O. Selznick, who was satisfied with perpetuating her role as a saintly actress who played victims and martyred heroines like no one else, but the actress felt unchallenged as if her talents were going to waste. Sometime in 1948 her perception changed when she saw Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, which led her to write a modest letter in which she offered the Italian director her services.
“Dear Roberto” she began, “I saw your films Open City and Paisan, and enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo’, I am ready to come and make a film with you.”
“I have just received with great emotion your letter” replied Rossellini in a cable “It is absolutely true that I dreamed of making a film with you and from this very moment I will do everything to see that such a dream becomes a reality as soon as possible”.
They met in 1949 while Bergman was working under Alfred Hitchcock, and the two began working on what would be their first collaboration; the story of a Lithuanian refugee who marries a brutish Italian fisherman (played by Mario Vitale) with whom she lives on the cruel island of Stromboli.
Rossellini, who was a world-renowned playboy and womanizer, fired his then-lover Anna Magnani and rewrote Stromboli (1950) for Bergman. During the shoot, they fell in love and had a child together, but since they were both married, their affair was instantly condemned by the media and religious figures, with American senator Edward C. Johnson accusing her of being “an instrument of evil”. Following a scandalous divorce, the actress was forced to flee America and move to Italy, where she would work with her eventual husband Rossellini in five films, three of which are contained in the magnificent 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman from The Criterion Collection.
The films’ merits have often been put aside when compared to the sizzle of the scandalous love affair (which some say created the tabloid culture that still rules the industry) and it’s about time that we focus on what drew Bergman to the exciting Rosselini. In all of his films, she was allowed a liberty Hollywood would’ve never permitted her, and she seamlessly blends in with his approach to drama as if it was nonfiction. In retrospect, what seems the most fascinating element of their films together is that they chronicle the trajectory of their relationship.
In Stromboli Bergman practically reenacts the beginning of their relationship; being trapped in a place far away from home, where she didn’t speak the language and was forced to remain because she simply had nowhere else to go. Rossellini captures her fears and hopes in a way only Ingmar Bergman would achieve decades later in Autumn Sonata. Watching Bergman in Stromboli makes us realize that her suffering is worse because she will carry her sorrows wherever she went, having become a “marked woman” living in a society where she wasn’t allowed to become anything other than the role that had been written for her.
The constant presence of the volcano on the island, and the fear that it will destroy them all at any time adds a spark of sexual masochistic pleasure, as Bergman’s character finds the allure of throwing herself into the crater as exciting as the actress herself found her love for the director. Like her character, she doesn’t know how to rationalize what is happening to her, but she knows it’s something that must be done. She would write a letter to her then-husband Peter Lindstrom trying to explain. “You saw in Hollywood how my enthusiasm for Roberto grew and grew, and you know how much alike we are, with the same desire for the same kind of work and the same understanding of life”.
After Stromboli, Rossellini would direct her in Europe ’51 (1952) a devastating drama about a woman who loses her child and decides to channel her love by helping those in need, leading to her eventual institutionalization. In this chapter of their oeuvre, the actress and her director seem to be satirizing the narrow-minded views people had of Bergman as a saint.
The film begins with her ignoring her “motherly” side in the name of being a good hostess and ends with her literal sanctification, as Rossellini practically gives her a halo with his lighting. It delivers clever commentary on how misguided people’s attentions were in a post-war society while paying homage to his previously shown interest in the goodness of St. Francis of Assisi. It practically screams, Why focus on our personal life, when there are so many people in need?
The couple would follow this with Joan of Arc at the Stake, (not included in the set) which perpetuated this open satirizing as Bergman played one of the characters that had made her iconic in America, and outdoes her performance. At the midpoint of their relationship, it seems as if Rossellini and Bergman realized that their love for each other had more to do with their shared passion for creating than for each other, and their next film would encompass this beautifully.
In Voyage to Italy (1954) Bergman plays an English tourist visiting Italy with her husband (George Sanders) in order to sell a property they own in Naples. Soon after their arrival, their marriage begins to unravel as they realize they’ve been together for all the wrong reasons. Rossellini proves himself to be a masterful analyst who uncovers details about love and relationships that continue inspiring filmmakers to this day (what is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight if not a remake of this film?). His exploration of literal love among the ruins gives path to some of the most memorable moments in Bergman’s career, with some scenes becoming hard to watch because it seems as if the camera doesn’t give her anywhere to hide.
Shortly before separating – “Swedes and Italians don’t mix” stated Bergman years after their divorce – the duo made one last film, titled Fear. In this project, Bergman plays a woman being blackmailed by her former lover’s girlfriend who threatens to reveal the truth to her husband leading her to the verge of suicide. Perhaps looking too much into whether the details of the plot have anything to do with the artists’ lives would be too morbid, but what remains obvious from this film is that their work together had come to an end.
In their short but concise oeuvre as co-creators, Bergman and Rossellini explored the subjects of cultural reappropriation, forced displacement, and the effects of war on human relationships in a way no one else was doing anywhere in the world. Their films combined cinematic methods many assumed would never work well together and in so doing delivered timeless works of art whose merits become clearer the more we distance ourselves from the gossip behind them.
However, distance yourself too much from the scandal and you lose the rich layers that transpire in every scene they shot together as they went from passionate lovers to amicable allies. The works of Bergman and Rossellini are monuments to love (whether it be romantic or ideological) and the void full of melancholy and anger left in the aftermath of its death.
The Criterion Collection might have delivered the greatest boxset of the year with 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman. The three films have been remastered and two of them are presented in both their English and Italian versions.
Special features include introductions by Rossellini to all of the films as well as a great documentary about the production of Stromboli titled Rossellini Under the Volcano. Also included are new interviews with Martin Scorsese, Isabella Rossellini (who also stars in a short by Guy Maddin included in the set), documentaries on Bergman and Rossellini’s directorial methods as well as the inclusion of The Chicken, a rarely seen short film in which the Italian director directed his wife. This set is a film lovers’ dream come true.