Love, War and Cinema


Francesco Patierno’s The War of Volcanoes

Francesco Patierno’s The War of Volcanoes weaves a beautiful vision of the complex and scandalous lives of Anna Magnani, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. With the use of Italian newsreels and real archival footage, it succinctly portrays a dramatic narrative that oscillates between the lives of these stars seamlessly.

The film starts off with Rossellini’s cousin, Renzo Avanza, who, along with four Sicilian friends, has created and patented a new technique for underwater filming. Along with footage of the Aeolian Islands, Avanza is interested in Rossellini’s involvement in a film he wishes to develop about an island community of poor fishermen. Rossellini shows no interest in helping his cousin out and instead develops his own rendition of the exact same story, which would eventually become Stromboli.

Magnani, Rossellini’s lover and actress-du-jour, is set to play the lead role. However, after receiving a letter from Bergman detailing her interest in making more meaningful films like Rossellini’s very own Rome and Open City, he is captivated and immediately convinced—no one other than Bergman could possibly play the lead in Stromboli. Under the guise of walking the dogs, he leaves Magnani, flies to New York and meets with Bergman, never returning to Magnani again.

Meanwhile, realizing that Rossellini has taken their idea, Avanza and his friends go to Hollywood and make a deal with Warner Bros and director William Dieterle to create their own version of the story entitled, Vulcano. The added twist? Magnani is set to play the lead role.


Francesco Patierno’s The War of Volcanoes

As the video evidence in this film attests, Magnani’s magnetism is palpable. She is an actress with a true onscreen presence and Patierno has a certain knack for tying together emotional scenes of loneliness and suffering to add to this story of betrayal and love. Unlike Sophia Loren, Magnani’s appeal is less sexual and more cerebral, and that is what sticks. Her blackened tired eyes and crooked smile are signs of her ragged beauty, a complete juxtaposition to Bergman’s ethereal innocence. This is what lends to our fascination with this story; two women on either side of the spectrum, vying for the love of a complicated man.

Though Patierno insists The War of Volcanoes lays no moral judgment, Rossellini’s cold walk-out on Magnani and his isolation of Bergman during the filming of Stromboli gives credence to his involvement in the “war” between these two volcanoes—his being, in essence, the destructive figure that catapulted this drama into action. As Magnani aptly says in a scene in Vulcano, “Who can say when theatre ends and life begins?” What becomes clear is that the these two films are indicative of the emotional toil surrounding each subject.

Although both films were critical failures, enough for one critic at the time to claim, “the volcano has belched out a tiny mouse,” Stromboli and Vulcano are not just legacies of an infamous love affair, but more about the enduring struggles of passion and pain. The War of Volcanoes ties these two factors together impeccably. The film resonates due to its depiction of tragedy to tell a tale that transcends the very public lives of these three people and, in doing so, attempts to humanize them.


Dheeraj Akolkar's Liv and Ingmar

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman’s relationship, featured in Dheeraj Akolkar's Liv and Ingmar, showcases a very different relationship all together. Another film about the tenuous relationship of director and muse, Liv and Ingmar portrays a love of intensity, obsession and emotional disintegration. The film is an homage to the difficult and yet powerful relationship shared by two of the most perennial avant-garde artists of our time.

Narrated by Ullmann, herself, the film focuses on the first five years of their relationship, which started on the film set of Persona. Evidenced through her memories, along with the videos and photos that surface, it is obvious that there was a deep and discernable connection between the two. Just after an intense few months together they left their respective partners and started a life together in the island of Fårö, living in complete isolation.

Ullmann, who at one point declares that she and Bergman were “painfully connected,” details a poignant account of their extreme love, which began with a mutual passion and immediate soul-recognizing bond. Overall, she is candid and open about her frustrations with him and recognizes the faults of their relationship, ruminating about his jealousy, rage and overall possessiveness. What is surprising is her cavalierness about his intolerable violence on set and disregard for her safety throughout their relationship. She excuses his antipathy as an almost peripheral, idiosyncratic Bergman trait. This continuous unyielding dedication to him, despite their failed partnership, is at times disconcerting to watch.


Dheeraj Akolkar's Liv and Ingmar

Similar to Patierno, Akolkar splices together images and sounds from Ullmann-Bergman films, like Scenes from a Marriage, revealing that their relationship became a major subtext for the films they created together. However, this documentary relies quite heavily on Ullmann's interview footage, which ends up being a major obstacle to enjoying the film. As it is completely from Ullmann’s tendentious perspective, there is no real contemplation or contrasting opinion. This makes for a weak and ingratiating narrative that is bland to watch. What’s more, her reverie of Bergman is a tone that permeates the whole film, making it uncompelling and safe, comparable to watching a biopic on the Lifetime channel.

As a tribute it showcases the evolution of the deep love shared by Ullmann and Bergman, which eventually turned into a robust and fruitful partnership that lasted decades. That is it's redeeming factor. It is a film that displays the power of love and the ability it has to adapt and change. What stays with you is that legacy. It installs a hopeful reminder that all people, in whatever capacity, come into our lives for a purpose.

The War of the Volcanoes screens October 3 at 6:15pm. Liv and Ingmar screens October 1 at 6:15pm with Liv Ullmann in person and again on October 9 at 8:45pm.

Fariha Roisin is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy program. You can follow her on Twitter at @mofafafafa.

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