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The Art of Scandal

Bergman, Rossellini, and three small masterpieces

Mondadori/Getty Images

Scandal fades faster than morning mist or horror films. So there are kids on the loose on the Internet now—you know the names and nothing but the names—who have to renew their scandals every few days or so if they are to remain “alive” or “on.” We watch this electronic parade with indifference and contempt. Unless it is something outrageous—like Kim Kardashian doing it in the library with John Boehner and a debt ceiling—don’t expect us to be impressed or to remember it by tonight. So the full heartfelt insanity with which Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini invented modern scandal has to be traced in history. She was beloved, idolized, idealized; if you like, strangers wanted to have sex with her. But when she revealed a similar need, the hounds of voyeuristic disapproval were unleashed.

She was born in Stockholm in 1915, the child of a German mother and a Swedish father. She was tall, handsome, and beguiling, and at the moment when she might have gone to make films in Berlin she was discovered by David O. Selznick. She left her husband, Petter, and their new daughter, Pia, to come to Beverly Hills for that opportunity. When she met Selznick, she told him she would not alter her teeth or change her name or wear a lot of make-up. She would stay her sweet, natural, honest self. He was charmed. In just a few years she became one of the most necessary film stars in the world.

Necessary, because she stood for a radiant nobility, the virtue of true sentiment, in a time of war. It is there in Ilsa in Casablanca, as in the raped Spanish girl in For Whom the Bell Tolls, as in the nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s, as in the menaced wife in Gaslight clinging to her own sanity against a cruel husband, and as Joan of Arc. She was nominated for four Oscars in the 1940s, and she won for Gaslight. She was adored and believed in; she was an emblem of what the war was about—so long as the world was simple-minded. In fact, she was wayward, willful, easily infatuated, and frequently compromised. She had love affairs of some kind with Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Robert Capa (the daring photographer), and Victor Fleming (her director in Joan of Arc). Yet she was still married and a mother, and worshiped in the press because of it.

At the height of her success, the beneficiary of a radical shift in the economics of her life, Bergman wearied of the rubbishy films she was asked to do. She had a point: Rage in Heaven, Saratoga Trunk, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s are fatuous. On the other hand, Casablanca, Gaslight, and Notorious are wonders. Yet Ingrid was never quite comfortable in Hollywood, and she had caught wind of new ideas and attitudes in European film-making. She had seen two films—Rome Open City and Paisan—that shocked and moved her because of their truthfulness, and she decided she longed to make pictures in that spirit. The source of the spirit seemed to be Roberto Rossellini, their inspiring realist director who had triumphed in the chaos of postwar Italy, but who was ambitious for all the things that Ingrid disdained: Hollywood, big money, sports cars, beautiful actresses, decadence, glory.

No one would dare write this as a story. But before the two of them met in 1948, Ingrid wrote Roberto a letter admitting she knew no more Italian than “ti amo,” but saying how much she yearned to work with him. They met. They merged. Like so many movie people they could not resist the admiration of others. Roberto was a womanizer, Ingrid slept around as if it were a religious calling. It was inevitable that they would become an item: and while Roberto hoped to make great box-office with Ingrid in America, they ended up going to the blasted volcanic island of Stromboli for an epic about a Lithuanian refugee who has to marry an island fisherman and who endures physical misery before she has a sublime insight—more or less that emotional women and great actresses need active volcanoes and unstoppable melodrama.

They both gave up spouses and children. For the general public, Rossellini was in character—he was an egotistical, handsome Italian who had had actress mistresses already (notably Anna Magnani)—but with Ingrid it was the nun getting into the gutter. She was condemned in the press; she was denounced on the floor of the Senate, and from other pulpits. She was attacked in the courts, and she was effectively blackballed at a time when Hollywood was eager to put an “X” next to so many names.

Let’s say they were in love, or in sex, for a while. (They had three children.) It didn’t last forever, or much past 1954. But for a few years Ingrid and Roberto had no real alternative to working with each other, whether they liked it or not. Their films were all flops, and they bear witness to the tensions between different ideas about film-making. The pictures were torn to pieces by critics who in most cases were angry about far more and less than appeared on screen. It was a few years before certain critics in France—such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut—said wait a minute, these are remarkable films. And now the Criterion Collection has put its enthusiasm and its scholarship behind a re-release of three of them: Stromboli (1950), Europa ’51 (1952), and Journey to Italy (1954).

Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Journey to Italy.

I don’t think it helps these films to say simply that they were masterpieces, missed and abused in their time. Nor is there much point in separating them from the turmoil in which they were made, which was painful, comic, and entertaining. Indeed: their story could have made a Douglas Sirk film from the 1950s, or a Fassbinder classic from the 1970s. It is also a landmark in the ongoing soap opera in which a man uses film to show what he feels for a glorious woman: it is of the same family as D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti, and so on.

They are black and white films, shot on too little money, with problems of unshared language and awkward supporting acting. They show the natural Ingrid aging fast and badly—it was not long before she could not wait to be out of the impulsive relationship. George Sanders, the co-star in Journey to Italy, was distraught at the whole experience because he could not see how Rossellini worked or what he wanted. In that film he and Ingrid play a married couple, on the point of divorce, who go back to Italy to sell a property. Stromboli went to the real island (with money supplied by Howard Hughes) and it veers between the harsh poetry of a barren place and a movie that needs to be sung. So there is curiosity value, to be sure, but much more. In their brokeback, unwitting way—for I think no one really knew what was happening—these films are harbingers of a new novelistic cinema in which Hollywood and Italian codes are being abandoned for a more modern emotional uneasiness.

Of these three, Europa ’51 seems to me the most interesting. It is certainly the least well-known. Ingrid plays Irene, married to George (Alexander Knox). They are wealthy and they are socialites in Rome. That culture has led Irene to neglect their son, Michele. The boy falls ill and he dies (as if from lack of affection). This has to be read against the backdrop of both Ingrid and Roberto being attacked for neglecting their own children. Irene is in shock and her whole existence comes into question. She is friendly with a communist journalist (Ettore Giannini) who educates her in how impoverished and wretched many people are. Irene starts to identify with the poor and do good works for them. Her husband is increasingly challenged by this change in his wife and he regards it as a symptom of breakdown. So he determines to put Irene in a mental institution and the film ends in uncertainty as to whether she will ever be released, or able to adapt her own life to the socio-political needs she feels all around her.

There was a documentarian in Rossellini, half earnest, half opportunistic, drawn to stories that dramatized his stormy alliance with Bergman. She was unhappy in this new system, but she was a fine actress who rose to the challenge. Europa ’51 is a film for its time, far more interesting now than the immediate circumstances of scandal. Some writers say Journey to Italy is the best film of the three, and its exploration of space as a measure of uncertainty is intriguing and beautiful. Stromboli is passionate just because these crazed people are on the real island acting out their story. But Europa ’51 has a calm and an existential structure not evident in the other two. You may be surprised that these awkward pictures are now preserved in such awe. But Criterion has done a great service in delivering them in fine prints and with so much historical background. Together these films (a fourth, La Paura, has been omitted) speak to an age in which the public clung to movie faces like refugees hoping for a meal. So Bergman’s actual Joan of Arc is so much less instructive than the arc of her own career.  

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson).