Bergman plays Karin, a displaced Lithuanian in Italy, who escapes the internment camp by marrying an Italian POW fisherman (Mario Vitale), whom she met in the camp on the other side of the barbed wire. He promises her a great life in his home island of Stromboli, a volcanic island located between the mainland of Italy and Sicily. She soon discovers that his home island is very harsh and barren, not at all what she expected, and the people, very traditional and conservative, show hostility and disdain towards this strange, foreign woman.
Adding to her difficulties, Karin speaks little Italian. She becomes increasingly despondent and eventually wants to escape the volcano island. The film also features documentary-like segments about fishing and an actual evacuation of the town after an eruption of the volcano. Most villagers are played by actual people from the island, as is typical of neorealism.Ingrid Bergman as Karin
Mario Vitale as Antonio
Renzo Cesana as The Priest
Mario Sponzo as The Man from the Lighthouse
Gaetano Famularo as Man with Guitar
Angelo Molino as Baby, uncredited
The film is the result of a famous letter from Ingrid Bergman to Roberto Rossellini, in which she wrote that she admired his work and wanted to make a movie with him. She and Rossellini set up a joint production company for the film, Societ per Azioni Berit (Berit Films, sometimes written as Bero Films), and she also helped Rossellini to get a production and distribution deal with RKO and its then owner, Howard Hughes, thus securing most of the budget together with international distribution for the film. Originally, she had approached Samuel Goldwyn, but he bowed out after having seen Rossellini's film Germany, Year Zero.
The terms of Rossellini's contract with RKO stated that all footage had to be turned over to RKO, who would edit an American version of the film, based on Rossellini's Italian version. However, the US version was eventually made without the director's input. Rossellini protested, and claimed that RKO's 81 minute version was radically different from his original 105 minute version. Rossellini got support from Father Félix Morlión, who had been involved in the screenwriting. He sent a telegram to Joseph Breen, director of MPPDA's Production Code Administration, urging him to compare the original script with the RKO version, as he felt that the religious theme he had written into the screenplay had been lost. The conflict eventually led to Rossellini and RKO taking legal action against each other over the international distribution rights to the film. The exact outcome is unknown, but it can be noted that the unrestored RKO version of the film, as distributed, is 102–105 minutes long and contains credits that were missing in the first RKO version; but it still has 1950 as the production year, and the same MPAA number as the 81 minute version. This indicates that the differences were resolved rather quickly.
The exact date of the Italian release is unclear; modern sources list the release year as either 1949 or 1950.
Stromboli is perhaps best remembered for the affair between Rossellini and Bergman that began during the production of the film, as well as the resultant child born out of wedlock. In fact, the affair caused such a scandal in the United States that Bergman was denounced as ”a powerful influence for evil” on the floor of the US Senate by Colorado Senator Edwin C. Johnson. Furthermore, her Hollywood career was halted for a number of years, until her Oscar-winning performance in Anastasia.
In Italy, Ingrid Bergman won a Nastro d'Argento (6th edition 1951) as Best foreign actress.
Initial reception for Stromboli in America, however, was quite negative. The staff at Variety magazine gave the film a mixed review. They wrote, "Director Roberto Rossellini purportedly denied responsibility for the film, claiming the American version was cut by RKO beyond recognition. Cut or not cut, the film reflects no credit on him. Given elementary-school dialog to recite and impossible scenes to act, Ingrid Bergman's never able to make the lines real nor the emotion sufficiently motivated to seem more than an exercise... The only visible touch of the famed Italian director is in the hard photography, which adds to the realistic, documentary effect of life on the rocky, lava-blanketed island. Rossellini's penchant for realism, however, does not extend to Bergman. She's always fresh, clean and well-groomed."
At the simplest level, the film may be viewed as a remarkable historical snapshot of the way the Island's residents lived less than seventy years ago.
In an expansive analysis of the film, critic Fred Camper wrote of the drama, "Like many of cinema's masterpieces, Stromboli is fully explained only in a final scene that brings into harmony the protagonist's state of mind and the imagery. This structure...suggests a belief in the transformative power of revelation. Forced to drop her suitcase (itself far more modest than the trunks she arrived with) as she ascends the volcano, Karin is stripped of her pride and reduced — or elevated — to the condition of a crying child, a kind of first human being who, divested of the trappings of self, must learn to see and speak again from a personal "year zero" (to borrow from another Rossellini film title)."
The Venice Film Festival ranked Stromboli among the 100 most important Italian films ("100 film italiani da salvare") from 1942-1978. In 2012, the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound critics' poll also listed it as one of the 250 greatest films of all time.
RKO lost $200,000 on the film.