Sometimes an epiphany is a light breeze, says Roberto Rossellini, and at others it is a volcano in full eruption. It opens with the words of Isaiah, postwar Europe is an opportunistic Lithuanian refugee (Ingrid Bergman) in an internment camp, just the latest stop in a life of displacement. Romance through barbed wire is her escape, she marries a Sicilian POW (Mario Vitale) only to find a new prison in their island home. "La terra è dura qui," warns the local padre, nothing grows on these crumbly black shores and nobody much cares for her lack of modesty: paint the blank walls and be bathed in scorn, talk to the lighthouse operator and get smacked by your husband, "a nice, simple boy." The camera stares as Bergman sobs in circles, an infant cries in the distance and the scorched landscape bears down from every side, even Renoir’s dying bunny puts in an appearance. "With me, God has never been merciful." The survivor’s progression is an increasingly visceral dialogue with her environment, such is Rossellini’s road to Damascus, a sulphurous summit awaits at the end of the heroine's search for wholeness. The fishing sequence—men wait in canoes, nets are raised, the grey ocean surface turns foamy and bloody with huge tuna speared left and right—is an astonishing set-piece closer to Hawks' Tiger Shark than to Visconti's La Terra Trema. The director’s supreme documentary achievement, however, lies in the recording of his irritable inamorata, a thorny snapshot of a Nordic Hollywood goddess awkwardly traipsing through jagged neorealist terrain and, in the process, delivering one of the medium’s great performances. "You can’t go from one extreme to another... All I want now is a little happiness!" A pivotal bedrock formation in cinema and no mistake, Flaherty and Vidor go in and Antonioni comes out. Smoke and lava nearly blot out the screen, then a morning wind cuts through fear and doubt to leave the Rossellini credo: "What mystery. What beauty." Cinematography by Otello Martelli. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce