On his 40th birthday the Italian director Roberto Rossellini received a surprise gift. It was a letter from the Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman: enchanted by his Rome, Open City (1945), she offered to come and make a film with him. She signed off the letter with the only Italian she then knew – “ti amo”. Thus began a five feature film partnership and a scandalous love affair that resulted in the break-up of Bergman’s marriage and a child born out of wedlock. This period between 1949 and 1955 saw the release of the three films in this collection: Stromboli (1950), Journey to Italy (1954) and Fear (1954), rereleased this week on Blu-ray by the BFI.
Rossellini is perhaps best known as a pioneer of Italian neorealism, a movement that typically involved the casting of non-professional actors. It is, then, rather a dramatic shift to poach and cast Hollywood’s leading actress: Bergman had previously starred in Casablanca (1942) and For Who the Bell Tolls (1943). Yet this period marked a change in style for Rossellini. Abandoning some important neorealist elements, he created films that would have been more recognisable to a Hollywood audience, although they still would have seemed very strange. Instead of dramatic editing he used very long takes; he gave people their lines bit by bit, without time to rehearse them, resulting in rather less slick dialogue and some dazed actors; he toyed with the conventions of Hollywood melodrama, with more ambiguously motivated characters and narratives lacking closed, symmetrical structures.
All three of the films pivot on a couple and the transformations Bergman’s characters undergo, although Fear seems the odd one out, in content and quality. No doubt drawing on her own outsider status, in Stromboli she is an Eastern European destitute bourgeoisie, caught in a displaced-persons camp following the Second World War, who agrees to marry a Sicilian fisherman to obtain a passport; in Journey to Italy she is an English woman visiting Naples with her husband to settle the estate of a deceased relative; in Fear she is married to a prominent German scientist but is racked by anxiety over an affair with another man. In each instance her character begins as self- involved, before being jolted out of her complacency and then undergoes a gradual, halting transformation towards a new acceptance of her reality, in some instances culminating in curious moments of grace. Taken together, Fear seems an awkward fit in this trilogy, where Europe ’51 (1951) may have been a more congruent choice. Yet Stromboli and Journey to Italy in particular, although much maligned at the time, are now seen as essential preludes to contemporary cinema and they are two films that ought to be seen.