Smoldering with volcanic passion and cross-genre fire, Francesco Patierno’s documentary The War of the Volcanoes recounts Roberto Rosselini’s eruption with Italian actress Anna Magnani and fusion with Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman.
The love saga unfolds across two Mediterranean islands, where rival productions Volcano and Stromboli, Terra di Dio were both shot in 1949. Magnani starred in Volcano, directed by William Dieterle, while Bergman became Rosselini’s leading lady on Stromboli, both onscreen and off.
Told entirely through a mashup of archival material, the film also remixes archetypes. The betrayed! The betrayer! The saint, mother, whore! Not only did the feuding films divide public opinion, so too their divas commanded hostile moral camps. In Bergman’s case, abandoning husband Petter Lindström and daughter Pia and bearing Rossellini’s child also incurred banishment from Hollywood and America for nearly a decade as well as religious rumble both stateside and in Italy.
Patierno originally set out to make a dramatic feature about the historic scandal, as he revealed during a press conference for the New York Film Festival (September 28 to October 14, 2012), where the film is part of a Cinema Reflected sidebar. Along the way he lit on the clever and engaging, if at times overblown, device of re-splicing old footage and stills to do his reporting.
Opening titles give a hint of the alchemy at hand. The three icons’ names come up over images of fiery lava, black crag and crashing night sea. Nota bene: there’ll be challenged souls and infernal forces to reckon with here. But surely hell hath no fury like Magnani shrieking “Ti amo!” in Rosselini’s 1948 film about a jilted lover, L’amore. The scene climaxes a montage of newsreels and clips from such Rosselini classics as Rome, Open City and Paisà voiced over by an audio of Bergman recalling her 1949 fan letter to the Italian director conveying her wish to work with him.
A string of similarly styled sequences bead together Patierno’s 52-minute pastiche. The effect is a compulsively watchable, spirited and well-paced work in its own right. Yet, it’s hard not to wonder about dramatic and non-fiction pairings with some of the more outsized archival takes.
Borrowing from enacted scenes to chronicle real life, the documentary often uses the names of the dueling actresses instead of the heroines they’re portraying onscreen. “I didn’t make up anything,” Patierno said about the emotional ventriloquy. Rather, he “studied what was happening in the period” and scoured archives in Italy, Sweden and the U.S. to produce the frames of his film, many of them previously unseen.
In one particularly eyebrow-raising reprise, a vintage movie character is called “an opportunist and a manipulator.” The dialogue is retrofitted to describe Lindström. Just how viewers may be influenced by such characterizations remains to be seen. What’s established is that both films flopped spectacularly when they premiered in Rome during the same week in 1950. Not even Rossellini’s cousin Renzo Avanza -- whose source material Rosselini had filched for Stromboli and who in response had helped mount Volcano with Magnani – could enjoy primordial revenge.
More lamentable, though, was Rossellini’s lost anti-war message. In his essay, "Why I Directed Stromboli,” he wrote, "one of the toughest lessons from this last war is the danger of aggressive egotism," which he felt created "a new solitude."
The War of the Volcanoes closes with a sweep of the desolate terrain and its spewing gases as the narrator insists the story is not about Anna, Ingrid and Roberto, but about a volcano that endures across time. It's too little too late to convince. Yet it invokes a god's eye view of human follies and lofts the guilty pleasure of pondering them.
Patierno's documentary invites a fresh look at the work and era it probes. Beyond the magma-like behavior of its protagonists, it also begs consideration of the genres and techniques -- documentary versus fiction and neorealism versus melodrama -- that open a second front in his filmically daring campaign.