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The real drama was definitely behind the cameras in the Mediterranean 63 years ago when Ingrid Bergman and Anna Magnani starred in competing films, Stromboli and Volcano, about women plunked down on neighboring Aeolian islands. Terrific Italian newsreel and archival footage from the post-WWII period makes Francesco Patierno’s informative and gossipy short documentary a real treat, one that will go down very well with cinephile audiences at festivals and specialized venues and on television.
This is a story that encompasses passion, cheating, jealousy, revenge and vindictiveness on an appropriately volcanic scale, involving two of the cinema’s greatest female stars and the director who quit one for the other. The battleground was Godforsaken dots of land made famous by the rival films and the anti-climactic result was two big flops no one wanted to see.
If there’s one key player who comes off here smelling like rather a bad fish, it’s director Roberto Rossellini, who screwed over his cousin by stealing his material, snuck out on Magnani for Bergman, made the latter a pariah in the U.S. by getting her pregnant and spent more than 100 days shooting a terribly under-prepared film.
But, as the plentiful visual material in this film attests, the Italian media were ready for him when he arrived with a Hollywood movie star on his arm. Suddenly famous in the wake of Rome, Open City and Paisan, Rossellini had been approached in the late 1940s by his cousin Renzo Avanza and four Sicilian friends who had patented new techniques for underwater filming and had written a story about local tuna fishermen he thought might appeal to Rossellini.
But the director’s mind was elsewhere. Having received a fan letter from Bergman offering to work with him, Rossellini slipped out of the rooms he shared with Magnani at the Hotel Savoy one morning to walk her dogs but left them with the concierge. He never returned, instead heading straight for New York, then to Hollywood to meet Bergman, who was at the peak of her celebrity as well as married with a young daughter. They began their affair and the director began plotting Stromboli, set on the bleak island in a community of poor fishermen.
Scenes of Magnani suffering alone and talking on the phone from her last film with Rossellini, L’Amore, cheekily serve to pave the way for her vengeance. Realizing that Rossellini had poached their idea, Avanza and his cohorts went to Hollywood, where they made a deal with Warner Bros. and prominent director William Dieterle to make a rival film, Volcano, with none other than Magnani to star.
Suddenly, the tabloid press was focused on two forlorn little islands that were hitherto noticed only when their volcanoes blew up, which they did with some regularity. Bergman’s relationship with her new director soon became obvious, as did, eventually, her pregnancy, Magnani was out for blood and Italy, so the documentary insists, became a nation hopelessly divided between supporters of each camp.
Meanwhile, filming proceeded with agonizing slowness, particularly on Stromboli, for which Bergman had arranged financing with Howard Hughes, whose dislike for Rossellini only increased as the budget soared. Footage of the shoot is depressing, showing the difficulty of working on a remote location with no infrastructure and artists whose intense mutual attraction is the only thing that can have made the experience bearable.
Remarkably, the films premiered in Rome the same week in 1950, Volcano disastrously so when the projection broke down, as the documentary shows. Despite its infamy for having occasioned its star’s infidelity and exile from Hollywood, Stromboli bombed too. In just under an hour, Patierno relays this wild episode in famous lives with verve, wit and you-are-there visuals that make it come alive in a way that it never could on the printed page.
Venues: Venice, Toronto, New York Film Festivals
Production: Cinecitta-Luce, Centro Studei Eoliano
International sales: Wide House
Director: Francesco Patierno
Writers: Chiara Laudani, Francesco Patierno, based on a book by Alberto Anile and Maria Gabriella Giannice
Producers: Andrea Patierno, Clara Del Monaco
Editor: Renata Salvator
Music: Santi Pulvirentu
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