Fans of classic Italian cinema have waited a long time for this one to appear on DVD and their patience was finally rewarded on 16 June 2010 with a two disc Collectors Edition from Gie SPHE-TF1 (that's a merger -- or "groupement d'intérêt économique" -- of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and TF1-Vidéo). Unfortunately, they don't seem to have pressed many discs and by 22 August 2010 the item was already being listed as "retiré." Neither company is saying when, if ever, they will be making any more copies, but one hopes that the movie will be more widely available soon.
The famous story of the making of Vulcano is almost as dramatic as the film itself. Roberto Rossellini planned to star his mistress Anna Magnani in a film set on Stromboli, but suddenly she was dumped in favour of new girlfriend Ingrid Bergman. Magnani moved to a rival production being shot simultaneously on a neighbouring island. When the films came out Stromboli was received quite well by the press, but Vulcano was massacred in nearly every review. During its Rome premiere on 2 February 1950 there were a series of organized interruptions which spoiled the evening, although it is unclear whether the mayhem was caused by the rival film crew or the local custodians of decency.
Looking at the film today, however, it actually comes across as a quite fascinating piece of Italian melodrama with Anna Magnani at her melodramatic best as Maddalena, the Naples prostitute forced by the authorities to return to her home island of Vulcano. Her younger sister Maria (a terrific performance from American actress Geraldine Brooks) is pleased to see her, but the other local women are not. In one harrowing scene Maddalena's dog is killed by the women who deliberately bury it in the sand. Magnani's anguished reaction to this horror is everything one would expect from her seasoned repertoire. Some reviews were highly critical of Rossano Brazzi's performance as the local vice racketeer Donato, but the main problem seems to have been Brazzi's shortcomings as a voice actor. The whole film was post-dubbed (Brooks had to speak in English during the shooting) and Brazzi's synchronization of his own lines was miles out. Apart from that he made an impressively odious two-faced villain. Another criticism was the insertion of Aeolian documentary clips which were already too familiar, although one would have expected cinema-goers in 1950 to mainly remember feature films rather than travelogues. Contrary to reports, the editing of these clips was fairly skillful by the standards at that time.
The worst comments from the press concerned the preposterous climax. Even though Donato knows that Maddalena hates him for defiling her sister, he still lets her operate the air pump while he goes for a walk on the sea bed. Not surprisingly she shuts off the pump, but incredible as this scenario certainly is, it does provide Magnani with arguably the most memorable scene of her career. Donato pulls at the emergency cord which rings a bell on the deck of the boat. Maddalena in a frenzy throws herself on the bell and throttles it until, like Donato, it is silent and dead. Stricken with remorse, Maddalena then ends it all by walking into an erupting volcano. Preposterous yes, dramatic certainly!
As so often in Italian films from this period, the "jewel in the crown" is the powerful, brooding score by Enzo Masetti. A gifted composer for both features and documentaries, Masetti is honoured by the producers of Vulcano with a whole sequence in which he has the soundtrack to himself. We see the choking pumice-stone mines, the tunny fishing and the local island customs, but there is no dialogue, commentary or effects, just haunting music. What more could any composer, or any film music fan, ask? Great score, great film.