Sunday, 19 July 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection (BFI)

A scandal that outaged polite society and beyond, plus a series of commercially unsuccessful films, largely given the thumbs-down by film critics. Is this how the collaboration between Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman will be remembered? We'll learn more about their relationship a little later on, but the films in this BFI box set have, I suggest, grown in stature down the years to emerge as solid rungs in the ladders of both their careers.

Disc One
"Stromboli Land Of God" (1950)

Spring 1944, and a 24 year old Lithuanian woman is proposed to through barbed wire. Karin Bjornsen (Ingrid Bergman) escaped to Italy and ended up in a refugee camp where she begins a relationship with Antonio (Mario Vitale). She promises to give Antonio an answer to his offer of marriage the following evening. The pair do indeed get married, and move to his beloved island of Stromboli; a place where people seem to leave and rarely return.
After barely 4 hours in her new home, Karin experiences bitter disappointment at the lifestyle and trappings of a place that was never meant for her kind.
With hostility expressed by all but a few of the islands inhabitants, Karin soon wants to go "far away from this damned place", with the few sparks of humanity nowhere near enough to settle her mind and her spirit.
Bergman's character is a complex one, occasionally taking pleasure at certain aspects of her daily existence, but mostly yearning for a better life. Her relationship with her new husband ebbs and flows, as she throws her hat at a handsome islander and even attempts to get hot and heavy with a priest who only wanted to make her at home in uncomfortable surroundings. Husband Antonio also has a layered character, exhibiting kindness and concern, along with a cruel streak that ensures our sympathies shift between both parties.
In the script, Bergman's character becomes pregnant and that's exactly what happened on the other side of the camera when she fathered Rossellini's child. Bergman's pregnancy was hidden on camera, so as not to add further to the wave of bad publicity which engulfed director and actress.
Add to this a rapidly escalating budget, and a rival film starring Roberto's jilted partner (which was being filmed on a nearby island) and you have an offscreen drama of epic proportions. I think Rossellini succeeded in making a film that stand out from all the controversy surrounding it.

The two leads tug at different emotions, backed by the director's neorealist approach of employing untrained actors who project the pressures of living in the shadow of an active volcano. Indeed, an actual eruption is caught on film, showing the evacuation of people who constantly live with the prospect of having to start over.
It's a hugely rewarding film, with a beautiful spiritual finale that demands reappraisal.

The extras on disc one begin with 'The War Of The Volcano's'; a 53m 59s documentary which begins by telling the story of Bergman's famous letter to Rossellini, expressing her desire to work with him, and how she replaced his partner Anna Magnani who was down to play the lead in "Stromboli".
Bergman was 32 years of age at the time and the hottest ticket in town, having just starred in Hitchcock's "Notorious". What follows in an account of a battle between two film sets as Magnani takes the lead in "Vulcano", while Rossellini fends off RKO inspectors pushing him to wrap. There's also spies attempting to infiltrate the hurly burly of shooting and all the time, a major scandal overshadowing proceedings.
It's a fascinating tale, and one which compels one to wonder where performance ends and life begins; something that can also be applied to the next film in this set.

Ingrid Bergman At The National Film Theatre
A 37m 7s interview, conducted by John Russell Taylor at the famous London venue. Here, Bergman talks about her early Swedish films, admitting she'd always wanted to become a stage actress. She talks about Hitchcock, "Casablanca", George Cukor and Ingmar Bergman. Her affair and marriage to Rossellini are also discussed, and she tells the audience she felt she should have been judged solely on her performances, rather than her private life. The last 13 minutes of the interview are given over to an audience Q&A, where she talks about Bogart, Claude Raines and a particular role she would have liked to play.

Living And Departed
An 18m 45s video essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher who identifies the spirtis in Rossellini's films who struggle to communicate, or simply can't.
Tag talks about a director who liked to keep his actors off balance, and of Roberto's brother Renzo, who composed the music for many of his films. Clips from "Stromboli" and "Journey To Italy" are used to amplify some excellent observations.

Disc Two
Journey To Italy (1954)

"Journey To Italy" was shot between February - April 1953, by which time the relationship between Rossellini and Bergman was beginning to crumble.
The film concerns married couple Katherine and Alexander Joyce (Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders) who arrive in Naples to oversee the eventual sale of their villa. This particular 'Italian Job' marks the first time they've really been away from hoe together and out of the comfort zone provided by other people with whm they feel comfortable; people who keep them from being alone with their thoughts and with each other.
Katherine soon discovers they are like strangers, and finds the hotel bar is a welcome release from their room, taking them to somewhere that has noise and other people.
With two potential buyers to see, the couple move into the villa, expecting to stay for a couple of days until the place is sold. What follows is a portrait of a marriage on the rocks, that is conveyed by realism, dictated by a number of factors. Both Bergman and Sanders were facing marital strife away from the camera, and the absence of a script simply added to the air of unease which surrounds their performances.
While his wife takes in local places of interest, Alexander shows an eye for the ladies in this place of love and relationships.
"Journey To Italy" shows young couples in love, pregnant women and mothers with pushchairs as fleeting glimpses of things that elude the Joyces, cementing their inability to communicate. As a disconcerting account of strangers in a strange environment, it's a different view to Fellini's "Toby Dammit", but just as disconcerting in places.
At the time, "Journey To Italy" was greatly misunderstood by critics and audiences, but fresh viewpoints have emerged, of a film that now stands as a classic from beginning to what is a miraculous finale.

An audio commentary from filmmaker and academic Laura Mulvey reveals this to be one of her favourite films, and goes on to explain the director's urge to move into new territory. Laura examines scene construction and camera movements; the turmoil in the lives of both leads; the presence of Naples itself in the cast and why the director was not taking sides with Bergman's character. It's an enlightening track that will increase understanding and appreciation of this film. The very same can be said about film scholar Adrian Martin's commentary. The alternative Italian cut "Viaggio In Italia" has been included as an extra on this disc, and can be viewed with Adrian's commentary. He talks about what made Rossellini such an important filmmaker; examines Neopolitan culture; analyses characters and scenes and makes some great observations. We hear the cast worked through an itinerary rather than a script, and how the director designed his film for a world audience.
The surname of the Joyces is also explored here; something which Laura also looks at during her track. Excellent work from both of these film scholars.

"My Dad Is 100 Years Old"
Directed by Guy Maddin, this is a playful and affectionate tribute, featuring Rosellini's daughter Isabella who declares her father saved all his energy for thinking. This is beautifully directed, with famous cinematic figures (all portrayed by Isabella) making an appearance, including Fellini, Ingrid Bergman, Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, as Rossellini's large belly wobbles away. There's footage of "Rome Open City" during the 18m short, but this is not an account of her father's films, but rather a glimpse at their relationship. Powerful and entirely memorable.

Disc Three
Fear (1954)

Rossellini shot two versions of "La Paura": one in German ("Angst") and an international version. The two cuts differ in terms of shots and editing, and it's the latter that's presented here.
Based on the novel "Die Angst" by Stefan Zweig, this is a tale of marital infidelity which affects the lives of four people. Ingrid Bergman plays Irene Wagner, the wife of a German scientist who is romantically involved with Erich (Kurt Kreuger). Irene had managed to conduct this affair in secrecy until Erich's ex-girlfriend Johanna (Renate Mannhardt) turns up. Now, their clandestine meetings may well be exposed as the jealous Johanna engages in blackmail to fund her expensive tastes. With her husband beginning to suspect something is badly wrong, Irene faces the prospect of emptying her bank account to buy continued silence.
It's a classic blackmail situation, but there is a twist in this story that begins with a stolen ring and ends up ....
This really is a gripping account of marital indiscretion, with film noir flourishes and several Hitchcockian moments that will surely keep you on the edge of your seat.
While it's true the quartet of central characters are a pretty unsympathetic bunch,their presence in each others lives and the implications and results of their actions do help us see various points of view and care about the outcome.

The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952)

This is a rare Rossellini feature that was scanned at 2K from a lavender print.
"Good people must kill bad people" is the message here, as a photographer is given the power to kill evil folks by using his camera. This involves procuring an existing photo of the intended victim and photographing the image which results in immediate death. There's plenty of likely candidates, too, as self-serving businessmen and councillors argue over who will benfit from an 11 million lire government grant.
The man behind the camera - Celestino (Gerrano Pisano) - is quite a character in his own right, and contributes greatly to some sublime examples of that wonderful Italian humour, aided and abetted by several hilarious individuals who make hay with the dialogue: "As soon as the Lord takes one, two more appear". Watch out, too, for the American involvement - "Nothing but steps in this town" - and the involvement of a horned minion from hell who has the power to reverse Celestino's handiwork. It's a thoroughly engaging feature, with ingenious special effects from the brilliant Eugenio Bava.

The image quality on all the features is solid , with good contrast and an abundance of detail. The source materials obviously needed a great deal of work but it's difficult to imagine these films looking any better than they do here. The sound also underwent painstaking restoration, being digitally cleaned and coming over as crisp and clear.

The final extra here is a booklet, containing writing from Tag Gallagher, Laura Mulvey, Adriano Apra, Peter Bondanella and Paul Fairclough. Background on all the features and very special insight makes this a fascinating and stimulating read.
This BFI set is available to buy now, and carries a solid recommendation for all lovers of world cinema.

Stromboli Land Of God
Italy, USA / 1950 / 1.33:1 / b&w / Italian language with English subtitles / 96 mins /
Original aspect ratio 1.33:1 / PAL / Dolby Digital mono 2.0 audio (320kbps)

Journey To Italy
Italy, France / 1954 / black and white / English language, with optional hard-of hearing
subtitles / 83 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.33:1 / PAL / Dolby Digital
mono 2.0 audio (320kbp

Germany, Italy / 1954 / b&w / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing
subtitles / 80 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.33:1 / PAL / Dolby Digital mono
2.0 audio (320kbps)

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