Nonfiction from NER 38.3 (2017)
It’s never the wrong time to think about human rights and the meaning of the good life, but 1950—with the first aftershocks of world war already felt, and the slow coagulation of a revised world order underway—might have been an especially apt moment. Roberto Rossellini’s film Stromboli, released that year, takes up these matters with all the director’s eccentric glamour and characteristic thumb-nosing.
Karin, the movie’s heroine (played by Ingrid Bergman), is a displaced person at the end of the Second World War. Her story, as she tells it, is one of perhaps amoral but not immoral love: Lithuanian by birth, she acquires a life in a central European capital, then an architect husband, then a series of canny and utilitarian affairs to get through the Occupation. She survives—with remarkably beautiful clothing for a passportless refugee. At the film’s start, she’s in a DP camp in Italy, seeking a visa for South America (a wink, perhaps, at Bergman’s 1946 role in Notorious as an anti-Nazi mole in Rio), but the bureaucrats suspect she’s done a little too well in love and war. Notorious be damned, in this version of cinematic fantasy, Nazis and their collaborators can’t move to the Americas.
So to solve the problem of statelessness she marries the first thing that moves: Antonio, an Italian POW who dogs her from across the camp and, from the way he looks at her, is willing to marry, or do just about anything else, if it means sex with Ingrid Bergman. This goes about as well as expected, for two hours of vicious fighting, shunning, shaming, and screaming. From the first day on her new island home of Stromboli, she’s a ball of mercury, just barely sustaining her edges but then, with the slightest tilt, dashing to pieces. She keeps her old wardrobe at first and redoes Antonio’s stucco hovel à la Matisse-on-the-cheap. But Antonio wants a traditional wife and has never before met a woman who’s objected. The men of Stromboli love her relative immodesty but aren’t above harassing her and Antonio, either. The women, in identical shapeless black, resent her difference and her self-proclaimed emancipation. The island’s active volcano hulks and glowers like a neighborhood bully. Some of this could be tolerable if Antonio weren’t such a “boy,” as Karin repeatedly calls him, unequipped intellectually and perhaps hormonally even to register the scope of her unhappiness.
Rossellini’s partiality to the close-up over the crane shot corresponds with his scaling of the period’s great questions—human enfranchisement, the rebuilding of life—into a tighter, more subjective coil. Stromboli lingers, nervy and lugubrious, on a single question, pried from those broader ones: What does a woman deserve? One answer it proposes is the tautology of the body: that one’s capacity for physical gratification implies a right to it. Since human history has often proposed other, less generous answers, however, the film unhinges in the disconnect—a melodrama veering on horror, as jumpy and brain-crackling at points as Clouzot’s or Hitchcock’s thrillers of the same decade. Stromboli promotes a wild, beautiful solipsism that sees the world through a small troop of victim-heroes disbanded to live among the unwashed (but high-buttoned) Other. You watch it and it feels like an explanation for every past melancholy, every nursed slight. You were on an island. That’s why you were unhappy. It confirms, you think, what you knew all along. At least that’s what happens to me, as soon as the opening credits fade and I see the DP women in their sweaters nestling around a barbed wire fence. I know it’s sordid and misplaced, this identification, but that may be why I can’t let it go.
Haughty Karin makes clear her greatest defilement is in not being understood. She’s foreign and cosmopolitan, a city mouse on a country island. Yet what she wants to convey in her towering rages isn’t that she enjoys houseplants and fitted blouses, or even that she sees herself as an artist of a kind. She wants people to understand what she’s lost, which has become the negative space that defines her being by subtraction. At times I think I can imagine it, her lost world, since eighty years and a continent’s remove haven’t changed much about a certain breed of educated urban privilege. I think she misses dinners at her friends’ apartments and the public debuts of friends’ projects and publications; she misses picking up wine on the way home, and buying a mildly freakish dress and then wearing it doubtfully around town, checking her reflection in sequential shop windows to decide, and then re-litigate, whether or not she’s erred. I miss these things after a week at my parents’ house, for God’s sake.
Karin’s new religion is the mourning of these things, and its Manichean sensibility condemns all who can’t understand the value of luxuries they’ll never have a chance to possess. Other deaths, other losses, become fuzzy: they aren’t the loss—of a city and a way of inhabiting it, of a style. Luckily for viewers, no one on Stromboli seems to be aware of the recent genocides and massacres on the Continent, so we don’t have to hear the pedantic voice chiding her shortsightedness: instead we get the unrebutted wail of a single woman’s single-serving war. Any thinking viewer, in 2017 or at the 1950 premiere, can provide her own historically grounded rebuttal to Karin’s self-centeredness, while at the same time copping to the essential personality of mourning—the thing that exists within and beside national and global tragedy, which injects the unthinkable with thinkability, even if it also admixes pettiness, myopia, plangency, and silliness. It’s one of the great surprises in Philip Roth’s otherwise second-tier novel The Dying Animal, when the narrator’s ex-lover comes to him years later to reveal a cancer diagnosis and he goes straight to pieces over the doomed perfection of her breasts—not her life, her physical pain, her capacity for love:
“Well, my aunt, my mother’s sister, has had breast cancer, and she was treated for it, and she lost a breast. So I knew that in my family there’s danger. I always knew this, and I’ve always been afraid of it,” and all the time she was talking, I was thinking, You, with the most gorgeous tits in the world. . . . I was watching her, listening to her, and when I couldn’t hear any more, I said, “Do you mind if I touch your breasts?”
Such comprehensible smallness! It almost makes dying a “part of life,” as contemporary soothers like to tell us, to see it broken thus into discrete and possibly trivializing aesthetics.
I don’t think Rossellini is making this point consciously, though. The bulk of the film reads as being thoroughly on Karin’s team, without a shot or a conversation’s pregnant pause to remind one obliquely of million-fold deaths and displacements. Curiously, then, his first letter to Bergman about the project dwells almost entirely on the psyches of Antonio and the stromboliani, their “humility so primitive though so antique, made wise by experience of centuries. One could think that they live so simply and poorly just because of that knowledge of the vanity of everything we consider civilized and necessary.” I like that little “one could think,” though again I’m not sure whether Rossellini is aware of how the phrase tweaks his own high-flown sentiment. He then moves on to Antonio’s emotional landscape:
I can’t deny in the deepness of my soul there is a secret envy for those that can love so passionately, so wildly, as to forget any tenderness, any pity for their beloved ones. They are guided only by a deep desire of possession of the body and soul of the woman they love. Civilization has smoothed the strength of feelings; undoubtedly it’s more comfortable to reach the top of a mountain by funicular, but perhaps the joy was greater when men climbed dangerously to the top.
So Karin, in the original conception, is the volcano to be summited. In the actual film, however, Karin is the only character to climb Stromboli—pregnant, no less, and thus as arch-female as it gets—suggesting a shift of gravity as the film developed. What changed? Rossellini cites catching the gaze of a Latvian woman in an Italian DP camp, her “mute intense despair.” He wants to give this stranger what he thinks is her due: an acknowledgment of her grief—and then a happy ending.
What he came up with left me feeling sucker-punched by its unintended cruelty. He gives Karin a revelation—on the slopes of Stromboli, of course. She starts with “I can’t go back! . . . They are horrible!” but as the light (and smoke) stream down, she changes her tune. Maybe it’s the carbon monoxide. “They [the villagers] don’t know what they’re doing. I’m even worse. I’ll save him . . . My God! Help me! Give me the strength, the understanding, and the courage!” After a few more interjections, the film ends there; some critics have argued that Karin’s next move is ambiguous, but it seemed clear to those making the movie that she was turning back as the credits rolled. (Ingrid Bergman: “Of course she would realize that there was a duty that she had to go back and have the child and live with her husband.”) It becomes, in essence, Antonio’s movie again, his property returned, like that brimming sub-genre in Iranian New Wave in which little boys are forever losing and regaining notebooks and pocket money and pairs of shoes.
Before I’d read Rossellini’s letters, I didn’t believe he’d really written that ending. Surely some faceless studio hacks had tacked it on. It seemed brutish and invalidating, to make her say that she’d been seeing Stromboli all wrong, that she was no better than they. Wasn’t that robbing her of those past months, to claim that they’d been lived in blindness?
Here I have to start admitting some crazy prejudices. My pet idea for years: that if you’re not fully aware of the reality around you, then you’re basically unconscious, no matter how much walking and talking you appear to be doing. This is the harsh and pigheaded rule I’ve foisted on myself since probably my late teens, with predictably negative consequences. It’s made me, for instance, unable to let go of failed relationships, on the theory that if I admit a new way of viewing an old situation, I’ll have to admit also that those months/years didn’t “count,” were missed opportunities, have shortened my effective actuarial time from seventy-nine years to maybe a mere seventy-four. For the same reasons, it took me a little longer to form my politics than it should have, a little longer to start taking breaks from the Church. I didn’t want to declare lost time.
When a boy broke up with me in college after a year and a half, I remember idly thinking, in one of the first glimmers of self-awareness I was able to muster from a few days of wholly inhabited, pure-id tantrum, “I wonder if I’ll think about him every day from now on. I wonder how long it’ll take before I’m thinking about him less than once per day.” Meta-tantrum in quantitative sheep’s clothing! Even now, with the tic devoid of almost all emotional content, I can’t sit alone without reading materials for more than ten minutes before I start automatically tallying up the roll-call of “whom I’ve thought of,” and whether it is daily—a compulsion that’s almost the same as actually thinking about someone lovingly or wistfully, but both shallower and more grating than either. Other people’s checking their stoves obsessive-compulsively has at least the upshot of sparing the world a few gas leaks.
So there: I hang onto things, and I don’t like to be wrong. Maybe Rossellini would understand this, and maybe he wouldn’t. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter, since Stromboli accomplishes that uncanny thing works of art can do, namely, it builds itself a soul, different from that of the director’s or actors’ or anyone else’s. It carries notes and predilections that come, for example, from the locals who served as untrained extras on the set; it comes from the rock of the place that will turn only so many shades of white and gray and merle and no more, let the camera man do what he may.
It’s the incredible sense of resistance on every visual and emotional level that gives Stromboli its particular character. It’s like 107 minutes of watching an electrical charge make its way through concrete. Karin has decided to define herself by what she can’t have—can’t earn, can’t spend, can’t dress, can’t wander—and Stromboli is more than happy to oblige. For anyone who’s ever experienced depression, the film works as a pretty decent externalized allegory, ending be damned. All progress is clotted, sludged. When she’s engulfed by nauseous terror at the enormous haul of fish that Antonio and his fellow fishermen secure—a sight that “should” make her happy, since it represents an increment of money in the direction of liberation—the camera leads us to understand that she’s reacting to the motions of the fish themselves: teeming, self-defeating, asphyxiated, they can do no more than lance at each other’s mouths and fins, going nowhere. Since the plot must go on, we’re later given to understand that this nausea was all due to morning sickness. Well, then Lear is about the depigmentation of hair.
Karin belongs to a tribe of unwillingly confined women—given a different exit visa from the DP camp, she could have moved to somewhere like Winesburg, Ohio, or to Los Angeles to become a Woman Under the Influence. Her situation is too completely bound, though, to allow Stromboli simply to join the genre. She’s blocked from so many angles that the film almost exits realism into allegory of mind, and instead finds itself butting its head in the crawlspace between.
It’s this genre-liminal quality—call it self-surpassing neorealism, or else very, very Old Wave, or Bunyanesque—that makes the movie so inviting of a susceptible viewer’s uncritical identification. It’s that old depressing sweater you can slip right into. As I’ve suggested before, we’ve all been to Stromboli. Mine was in my first year of medical school, when I moved from Brooklyn to central Virginia. By the time I arrived, I couldn’t remember when or why I’d decided to move, or to become a doctor at all. (I still don’t—though I’ve come to love the job—and tend to make up a different origin story whenever people ask.) It had something to do with the rather premature conclusion that I’d never be a serious poet, and equally/oppositely to do with the spurious idea that I could surprise myself into poetry if I gave it up. I felt like throwing my life away, or at least throwing it to someone else to take care of, but because I’m well-raised, obedient, and an ace student, doing so took the unlikely form of going to a good professional school towards a vocation that was, at worst, a moderately poor fit at the start.
I found a 400-square-foot cinderblock cottage in the small fenced yard of a somewhat larger cinderblock house, the two structures perhaps fifteen yards apart. The woman in the main house and I both rented from “over the mountain,” a pleasant retired couple in Waynesboro who obligingly put screens in a couple of the windows when the mosquitoes became too much. There were other cottage problems—damp seeping up through the dirt-floor basement and blooming mold on walls and wood, an endless trickle of sugar ants, door-parts that preferred to be floor-rubble—but I never confessed these to Waynesboro, figuring that they were probably my fault for using the shower or preparing food.
I was convinced that life across from Lucy, the woman renting the house on the property, presented the true, though wholly exogenous trial, and that it was not my fault. Lucy was tall, middle-aged, single, fanatically thin, with a preference for turtlenecks that accentuated the dizzying vertical drop from her chin to her toes. She invited me into her house once: black-and-white photographs of her father in his Second World War uniform, toys for her two Corgis, and an extensive array of the unprocessed, generally brown ingredients that with dutiful effort could make everything one strictly needed, from soaps and candles to hats and many meals cousin to the pilaf. My garbage, which I carried past her always-open windows to our joint trash pile, was relatively spartan as well, except for the recycling’s weekly revelation of an insatiable hunger for cheese, cookies, wine, and beer, as well as clothes from the city that I’d sometimes order just to try on, knowing I’d take them back during some dimly imagined school vacation.
Our respective physiques and trash would alone have convinced me, slightly bug-eyed from loneliness, that her presence next door constituted an ongoing indictment of mine. But I was also feeding my guilt in other ways: I was dating a man on the other side of the country, yet he distinctly failed to resemble the rotation of men on my porch. I lived in fear that Lucy would drop a faux-innocent remark when Andrew came to visit, and hated her for her hypothetical ability to do so. When one of the visitors took to driving me to school in the morning after nights in the cottage, I would curl in my seat, holding my breath and sucking in my stomach as if doing so somehow shrank and muted the car itself, the better to escape past her window.
Only now can I see the irony of making Lucy my imagined enemy when she was exactly what I sought to be: a woman alone who didn’t give a shit. Our shared clothesline was closer to the front of my cottage than hers, and she came right up, pinning shapeless panties that must have been wildly oversized, ignoring the hard rain of our oak tree that sent bullets onto our tin roofs. She called to her Corgis in a long trilling whoop, or else in a series of bulging rustle-sounds like birds emerging half asleep from a thicket. Her Corgis had zero compunction about being basically hirsute thyroids with feet. I made Lucy out to be my strombolian, when maybe she was my Karin.
Or else she was truly the strombolian, but with a purpose. After all, I did fall in love with the one who drove me to school, at least for a time (see above re: tallying, indeterminacy), and so for a while three people were miserable. Maybe there is something to policing the village. In the film we have to see Karin wronging others, sinful and grotesque, to believe in her suffering. Who can actually believe that it hurt the old Roman virgin saints to have their breasts torn off or their bodies lashed to Catherine wheels?—they are too good, too peaceful, for us really to believe they have nervous systems like you and I. Karin obliges by being ferociously ugly and antagonistic. She whines and paws at Antonio’s small savings, telling him, “I’m very different from you. I belong to another class,” then throws the bills down in disgust: “You need much more for a woman like me.” You understand why she draws hatred like a sponge and want to protect poor fumbling Stromboli from her spite. But you also know, now, that she’s real.
Other confined women of the film’s era aren’t as lucky. Take the young wife in Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. Fragile and hypothermic, she sees that to be a headmaster’s wife means a schoolyard without end, complicity in a Red Rover logic. It makes her wan; she can’t eat; we doubt she does much in bed. Because on some cosmic-chauvinist scale she makes herself marginally more unpleasant to the world than the world is to her, she’s killed off—by the husband, and by the female teacher who’s found a way to keep smoking and setting her hair even though the schoolyard chokes her, too. This Other Woman, the teacher, is consistently good-looking, warm-looking. Maybe that’s the logic of this film’s ledger, and why it makes us jumpy: the innocents are slaughtered, though they would have been frozen out anyway. We’re horrified, but not exactly for the little wife. She won’t let us feel that far into her, and thus blocks the way that our natural springs of self-pity would run.
When I met the other man’s mother in her New York one-bedroom—the holidays had come; he and I wanted to see each other there; it was the most discreet, and cheapest, source of bed—I’m sure she knew I was terrible news. I couldn’t help myself, my compulsive need to put myself in the wrong: I wore a fake leather miniskirt and a tight, gaudy sweater covered in blue-eyed cats in various states of tongued self-grooming. I can’t remember if I had nipped a strong drink on the way or if I only felt like I had. She grilled me about the courses I’d taken in college four to eight years earlier and wanted to know which magazines I read seriously. (I had a Palin-to-Couric moment: “All of them? Any of them?”) At some point I made an offhand remark about a former professor’s recent bout of cancer, to which she replied, all eyebrow, “Well, doesn’t everybody ?”
As I recall (which should be the heading of all of this), I was thrilled. It was the first time in a long time that someone had given me a hard time, and I wanted so badly for someone to do so. Now I had an objective correlative, a reason to insist on proceeding as insouciantly as possible, to let myself harden against—what? I claimed the one bedroom for her son and me, and she slept on the couch.
When Karin makes her penultimate attempt to leave Stromboli, she arranges an assignation with a man in a cave along the shore. Suddenly she’s girlish, picking at her shoes and wiggling her toes. It’s an innocence donned one last time in order to drop it as deliberately. She needs to be the kind of person whose innocence was never “stolen” so much as lightly discarded. Karin’s supposed to get a boat ride out of the rendezvous, but no one could be less surprised than she when there’s no boat. Why do we want, sometimes, to be ugly and futile? I only know why we want to tell stories about it: partly it’s a feeling, hopefully wrong, that worst is truest. Partly it’s deep knowledge that triviality is a humanism—impossible to imagine one without the other—and what’s most petty cannot be excluded without a loss of the real. To feel oneself alone is to be, at least once, a bit of a silly bitch, and if you’ve never been/felt either, then you’ve got some attention to pay.