Although the film was initially haunted by controversy, a consensus seems to have grown up around Stromboli (1949), Roberto Rossellini’s first collaboration with Ingrid Bergman, a consensus concerning not simply the film’s critical standing – it is widely believed to be a masterpiece – but also how its final scene should be read.
The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection is available on Blu-ray from the BFI.
Stromboli focuses on Karin (Bergman), an educated Lithuanian who marries a poor Italian peasant in order to bring about her release from a displaced-persons camp. Discovering that life in her husband’s village is rough and brutal, the pregnant Karin decides to leave, though doing so involves climbing an active volcano. After collapsing in hysteria during her escape attempt – sobbing “Enough! I’m finished! I haven’t the courage!” – Karin falls asleep, and awakes the next morning to find the volcano now silent; apparently having arrived at a state of inner peace, she declares “Oh, God. Oh, God. What mystery. What beauty.”
The usual assumption is that Karin will return to her husband and make the best of life in his isolated community. The reason this reading is so widespread may have something to do with many commentators having initially encountered Stromboli in the version prepared by RKO, who rejected the director’s 106-minute cut and created their own 81-minute edition, which used alternate takes throughout, had a different score, and was disowned by Rossellini. This variant follows Karin’s awakening with some comments from RKO’s anonymous (but significantly male and American-accented) narrator, who informs us that “Out of her terror and her suffering, Karin had found a great need for God, and she knew now that only in her return to the village could she hope for peace” – the film ending with an outtake of Karin looking ecstatic and shots of the village to which, it is implied, she will return (undoubtedly receiving another beating from her husband in the process).
Yet Rossellini’s cut ends quite differently. After Karin’s “What mystery,” we see her look up as she says “What beauty” (RKO’s editor played this line over a shot of smoke rising from the volcano). She proceeds to move across the rocky landscape, then comes to a halt and says “No! I can’t go back! I can’t! They are horrible. It was all horrible. They don’t know what they’re doing. I’m even worse. I’ll save him. Oh, my innocent child. God! My God! Help me! Give me the strength, the understanding, and the courage!” The final shot shows birds flying free as Karin shouts “Oh, God! Oh God! God! Oh, my God! Merciful God! God! God! God!”
If certain critics maintain Karin is begging God for the strength to return home, they have the support of Bergman, who once told Robin Wood, “Of course she would realise that there was a duty that she had to go back and have the child and live with her husband; but at the same time you don’t know it, you have to guess it.”
Yet this interpretation seems to me obviously wrong. The way she caresses her stomach during the final scenes suggests Karin’s primary concern is indeed with her unborn son. But the line “I’ll save him” implies that, even if it means becoming a single mother, Karin will make sure her child is born in a place where, unlike his father, he will not be indoctrinated into a cult of masculine brutality. The volcano is not the representative of a heavenly God whose power Karin must submit to but, on the contrary, an embodiment of that earthly patriarchal culture whose primitive violence she is determined to transcend, what she is last seen praying for being the strength and courage to continue her escape.
Complicating our reading even further is the fact that Stromboli also exists in a third version (the only one included in the BFI’s new Rossellini/Bergman box set), intended exclusively for Italian distribution. It runs 100 minutes, has been dubbed into Italian throughout (making nonsense of several scenes involving linguistic confusion), and contains a brief section, shot by Father Félix Morlion several months after principal photography, in which, following Karin’s collapse by the volcano, she says “God, if you exist, grant me a little peace.” These shots were reportedly added because of complaints about Karin’s transition from belief to faith being too rapid – though I would argue that this transition was nonexistent, Morlion’s footage serving only to muddy the waters.
Fear (La Paura, 1954), the last Rossellini/Bergman collaboration, also exists in three different cuts, with three different endings. Bergman here plays Irene, a married woman trying to prevent a blackmailer from informing her husband, Albert (Mathias Wieman), of her infidelity. Upon discovering that the blackmailer was actually working for her husband, Irene attempts suicide, only to have Albert turn up at the last minute (literally 50 seconds from the end of the film) and bring about a reconciliation.
That, at least, is what happens in the English version. The German version is essentially the same, but one alternate editing choice – the insertion of a shot showing Albert standing in the doorway – means that, unlike in the English version, where we do not realise Albert is present until he calls out to Irene, we here view subsequent events through his eyes, making for a crucial shift of identification.
But the Italian version – recut without Rossellini’s participation and retitled Non credo più all’amore – opts for a completely different climax. There, Irene decides not to commit suicide, and instead flees to her country home, where she is reunited with her children. We then see Irene sitting in a chair having her hair affectionately stroked by the family’s housekeeper, a shot taken from earlier in the film, but now dubbed with dialogue in which Irene talks about her children, insisting “I’ll live for them now. I don’t believe in love anymore. I suffered too much.” The film ends with the housekeeper reassuring Irene that “Your children’s smiles will brighten your future.”
A fascinating pattern thus emerges. Whereas the ending of the first Rossellini/Bergman collaboration, in which Bergman’s character contemplates raising a child by herself, was altered by one distributor to make it seem she has decided to return to her husband, the ending of the last collaboration, in which the marriage of Bergman’s character is reaffirmed, was changed by another distributor to make it seem she has left her husband and will raise her children alone (or, to be more precise, with the assistance of a sympathetic female housekeeper).
If Rossellini frequently vacillated between radical and conservative positions, the multiple endings of Stromboli and Fear – their rejections of bourgeois domesticity arrived at by completely opposed means – suggest the concerns which animated the director, and the ambivalence with which he addressed them, were not simply personal, but deeply rooted in the various cultures with which he engaged.