The then-scandalous affair between the star and director of "Stromboli" was what set it apart from their other films. Love and the volcano erupted -- but the box office didn't. "Stromboli" clearly aspires to be a mystical, enriching film, but the plodding dialogue and meandering pace bog it down.
Karin (Ingrid Bergman) is a Czech refugee living in a camp, desperate to escape but unable to. She finds her doorway out when she meets the Italian soldier Antonio (Mario Vitale), who asks her to marry him. Karin doesn't love him back, but she agrees to get out of there. Bingo, that's what they do. They are married, and Karin leaves.
But Antonio comes from the island of Stromboli, a volcanic place occupied mostly by hardy tuna fishermen. And in some ways, it is as much a prison for her as the refugee camp. The village is backward and isolated, the people unfriendly, the mindsets narrow and Antonio seems like a stranger. Karin's desperation starts to grow, especially when she learns she is pregnant.
Rossellini's style was one of neo-realism, as much realism as a film can have while still being fictional. "Stromboli" was filmed on location (in ridiculously primitive surroundings), with most of the cast made up of local fishermen that Rossellini recruited for his movie. Bergman even had to climb the volcano and live in a shack with no electricity and plumbing.
The stark, bleak shots of the island and its tiny village are amazing, breathtaking. They help convey the black-and-white simplicity and roughness of life there. But Rossellini's peculiar filming methods take away from the bleakness of it. He improvised as he went, with no fixed script, and the resulting scenes feel poorly thought-out (Bergman gets upset over and over and over). However, this wasn't entirely Rossellini's fault; the Hollywood studio got its hedge clippers on "Stromboli," stripping away much of the atmosphere and quite a bit of the plotline.
Bergman's outstanding acting skills are what elevate the film above "mediocre." With her subtlely expressive face and eyes, she draws in our sympathy and understanding for Karin in a very trying situation, even though the character is a deeply underdeveloped one. At times, she is revealed to be also a bit selfish and manipulative. Mario Vitale does a fair job as Bergman's tradition-bound, rather close-minded husband, who has little idea of her suffering.
"Stromboli" is far from a masterpiece, but it's not a dud either. Bergman and the island are stunning, but the choppy, wandering storyline takes away from what could have been truly breathtaking.