Monday, October 7, 2013

Blu-ray Review: 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman [Criterion]


In May of 1950, Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini married Swedish actress-turned-Hollywood-icon Ingrid Bergman. Earlier that year, the two had welcomed a son amid a flurry of tabloid gossip and moral accusations. The pair met less than a year prior, after Bergman had expressed interest in working with Rossellini, and though each were married at the time, a personal and professional relationship developed, resulting in perhaps the most fruitful collaboration in cinema history to that point. Despite the outside conditions (both director and star were constantly harassed by the media during these years), it stands to reason that it was this very environment that inspired such emotionally and aesthetically brave decisions on the part of Rossellini, who had already helped popularize his home country's neorealist movement throughout the preceding decade.

The films Rossellini and Bergman made in the early '50s were something altogether different, and not only in comparison to the director's prior output. Still retaining distinct aspects of the vérité sensibility with which he made his name, particularly in the films' unique sense of locale and ethnography, this (retroactively defined) trilogy of spiritual and existential concern would prove to be Rossellini's most crucial contribution to the cinematic canon. No longer simply a mode for dramatic storytelling, though with an unmistakably melodramatic façade modeled on the design of concurrent Hollywood productions, these films would instead ponder issues of great psychological import via a decidedly metaphysical approach. Less conceptual than uncommonly intuitive, the work produced by Rossellini and his new muse during this period would do nothing short of usher in what we now know as the modern cinematic age.

What's interesting is that Rossellini would accomplish this feat with but a modicum of narrative gestures, transposing the histrionics of melodrama into slow-simmering character studies of grave consequence. In fact, the first three (out of a total of five) films the director would make with Bergman follow markedly similar trajectories. In each case, a married woman in a foreign land becomes disenchanted with her current lifestyle and embarks on an instinctual, soul-cleansing mission to ameliorate her discomfort. In a conventional sense, little transpires in these films, each woman simply—and in some cases inexplicably—relinquishing her grasp on her carefully controlled persona in an effort to find meaning and, hopefully, inner happiness. By stylistically stripping these films of traditionally dynamic storytelling attributes, yet without sacrificing the tumultuous undercurrents which motivate these women, Rossellini happened upon an entirely fresh methodology.

These properties can be seen in their nascent form in both 1950's Stromboli and 1952's Europe '51. The former, Rossellini and Bergman's first pairing, is a harrowing account of an idealistic woman's descent from newly married refugee to frightened mother-to-be against the literally volcanic backdrop of the coastal Sicilian village of the film's title, while the latter charts the inexorable social degradation of a mother in the wake of her son's death. Both setups suggest ample opportunity for outsized theatrics, and there are indeed instances of intense emotional discord on the part of Bergman, but it's in the quiet moments, at the interstitial junctures, where these films gather their accumulating power. In Stromboli, it's most evident as Bergman traverses the island landscape, exploring the disorienting coordinates of her new home and absorbing the local culture (it's here we also see Rossellini's neorealist philosophy reassert itself, with documentary-like sequences of commercial tuna fishing). Bergman's character in Europe '51, meanwhile, has little such freedom, as her efforts at a more modest, humanitarian way of living lead to charges of such extreme activism that she's institutionalized for her behavior. In each case what we're witnessing is the simultaneous disillusion and evolution of a woman with desires far greater than her present situation can possibly fulfill.

In 1954's Journey to Italy, marriage can bring fulfillment to Bergman's character, though not without the undertaking of a transcendental odyssey that will finally bring her feelings full circle. And it was with this film that Rossellini himself would reconcile his major thematic and aesthetic preoccupations, arriving in the process at a plateau of cinematic serenity. As in the prior two films, the inner turmoil of Bergman's character, Katherine, is a reflection of her surroundings. Naples, a city of vast historical beauty, is transformed here into an intimately claustrophobic environment, smothering a relationship that presumably had roots in genuine passion and reciprocation. When Katherine's husband, Alex (George Sanders), proposes some time apart, the two venture toward different activities, his more hedonistic and hers more devotional, before reconvening for a visit to the ruins of Pompeii which brings suppressed feelings flooding to the surface. The final scene, one of those rare instances where the divine seemingly interjects both in the production and the narrative alike, elevating each to a level neither could have reached on their own, marks a division: between the old and the new, the antiquated and the modern, the schematic and the instinctual.

More so than most any subsequent movement, let alone simply a professional pairing, you can consistently sense the influence of Rossellini and Bergman's partnership in the constantly recalibrating trends of international cinema. From Bresson to Godard to Antonioni (arguably the only director to directly build on Rossellini's foundational design) to, more recently, Abbas Kiarostami and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Rossellini's combination of compositional austerity and structural indeterminacy has been a vital component of how we continue to analyze and engage with cinema—not to mention criticism. That these two immense figures in filmmaking had to converge, collapse, and reconfigure is thus apt as we consider their lasting impact. That a break in arguably the foremost contemporary art form would occur at the midway point of its first full century is likewise no accident. Bergman's personal journey to Italy may have had immediate consequence in her and Rossellini's various pursuits, but the artistic reverberations have endured longer and have had far greater impact than anyone could have anticipated.

Image/Sound:
Considering that Stromboli, Europe '51, and Journey to Italy are Italian productions from the early 1950s, starring an array of international actors and non-actors speaking a variety of conflicting languages, the films comprising the Criterion's box set intelligibly and impressively transfer to the high-definition format. All three restorations—or technically five, if you include the Italian versions of Stromboli and Europe '51, also included here—are presented on 1080p Blu-ray with the respective quality advancing with each successive film. Thus, Stromboli, the oldest of the films, looks the weakest by comparison, with some damage marks and fluctuating contrast throughout. Similar inferiorities plague Europe '51, which is smoother overall, but is hampered by scratched frames on occasion. Nevertheless, both films look quite textured with hints of grain and plenty of detail in close-ups. The sources for these films obviously leave Criterion with only so much to work with, but noticeable effort has been put into these transfers—and on those terms both are satisfying visual experiences. Journey to Italy, however, eclipses each by a wide margin, looking excellent by any standard. The transfer is clear and clean and offers a lot of depth in the frame, with very few if any damage marks to mar the appearance. Audio, meanwhile, is also at the mercy of each individual source. Each film is offered in a linear PCM track (in either English, Italian, or both), and as Roberto Rossellini's soundtracks were mostly stitched together in post-production via dubbing to account for the varying nationalities of his actors, each is understandably scattered and occasionally disorienting. Dialogue is mostly clear, however, with voices upfront and noise kept to a minimum. As with the picture, not much more could have probably been done with the elements offered, and thus nothing egregious is evident enough to warrant much complaint.

Extras:
The supplemental package put together for this set by Criterion is, in a word, triumphant. It would be futile to detail everything on offer, but suffice it to say they've left nearly no stone unturned. Highlights include vintage introductions to each film by Rossellini himself, film-specific interviews with critic Adriano Aprà, an audio commentary track on Journey to Italy by feminist film theorist and filmmaker Laura Mulvey (who approaches the film from a invigoratingly philosophical angle, meditating on the film's theoretical and historical concerns), a conversation with daughters Ingrid and Isabella Rossellini, an interview with director Martin Scorsese, a comparison of the multiple version of Europe '51 by Elena Dagrada, and a pair of essential, in-depth visual essays by scholar and critics Tag Gallagher and James Quandt, who expertly deconstruct both the director's aesthetic and narrative advances over the course of the trilogy. Elsewhere, there are a handful of lengthy documentaries (about both the director and star, as well as their lasting legacy) spread across each disc, including a fourth dedicated to additional extras, which, among other pleasures, also features one final collaboration between Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini entitled The Chicken, a lighthearted short film shot around the couple's home in 1952. A hefty 85-page booklet including essays by Richard Brody, Dino Iordanova, Elena Dagrada, Fred Camper, and Paul Thomas rounds out the package, which is quite simply one of the most complete that Criterion has ever produced.

Overall:
Less conceptual than uncommonly intuitive, the work produced by Rossellini and his new muse during this period would do nothing short of usher in what we now know as the modern cinematic age. [Slant]

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