Vulcano, we’re informed at the end of the film, is not a story about Maddalene (Anna Magnani) or her younger sister, Maria (Geraldine Brooks); it’s about the volcano, which never changes.
I can’t resist a good Italian melodrama, especially a neorealist one. Although not a major work or a prime example of the movement, Vulcano doesn’t disappoint even with its numerous flaws. For reasons not immediately revealed, Maddalene returns to her girlhood home on a Sicilian island that she left for Naples some 18 years before. A far cry from the rough and dreary yokels who inhabit the island, Maddalene is elegant, urbane, alluring, and much better dressed. She’s also got a not-so-secret career as a prostitute back in Naples.
The women shun Maddalene, interfere with her options for legitimate work on the island, and block her from entering church to attend Mass. One crazy bitch goes so far as to kill Maddalene’s dog in a quarry. All of this confuses innocent Maria, who is unaware of her sister’s, um, vocation. Enter sexy scammer Donato (Rossano Brazzi), a sponge diver after a sunken trunk. After a few demonstrative rebukes, Maria gives in and falls in love with him. Maddalene realizes Donato is also a recruiter for a sex slave ring—and he’s got his sights set on Maria. How far will she go to protect her little sister?
The melodrama here is wonderfully overdone (Vulcano is purportedly Magnani’s revenge film after her lover, director Roberto Rossellini, dumped her and replaced her with Ingrid Bergman in another film called Stromboli). The location looks like another planet; all dirty, dry, and deserted, it works well in illustrating the desolate, loneliness of the island and Maddalene’s situation. The narration, however, is cheesy and crudely executed. Director William Dieterle throws in a bunch of odd scenes on fishing boats and underwater that come off gratuitous and not quite natural. The ending is abrupt and silly—a volcanic eruption cuts everything off. Qualunque cosa.
(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-