At some point during this (depressive) phase, I was crying on the kitchen floor for no reason. As was common practice during bouts of floor-crying, I was staring straight ahead at nothing in particular and feeling sort of weird about myself. Then, through the film of tears and nothingness, I spotted a tiny, shriveled piece of corn under the refrigerator.
I don’t claim to know why this happened, but when I saw the piece of corn, something snapped. And then that thing twisted through a few permutations of logic that I don’t understand, and produced the most confusing bout of uncontrollable, debilitating laughter that I have ever experienced.
That piece of corn is the funniest thing I have ever seen, and I cannot explain to anyone why it’s funny. I don’t even know why. If someone ever asks me “what was the exact moment where things started to feel slightly less shitty?” instead of telling a nice, heartwarming story about the support of the people who loved and believed in me, I’m going to have to tell them about the piece of corn. And then I’m going to have to try to explain that no, really, it was funny. Because, see, the way the corn was sitting on the floor… it was so alone… and it was just sitting there! And no matter how I explain it, I’ll get the same, confused look. So maybe I’ll try to show them the piece of corn – to see if they get it. They won’t. Things will get even weirder.
What happens then is more difficult to describe. The initial shock of alienation is followed by a slow, halting, uncertain progress toward a new experience and acceptance of the physical world, which presses in with all the prickly materiality of Rossellini’s neorealist training (and even long passages of outright documentary, like the violent fishing expedition in Stromboli or the guided tours through Naples and Pompeii in Voyage).
But at the same time, the Bergman character experiences a kind of spiritual transformation: collapsing at the summit of a volcano in Stromboli, she awakes illuminated by a new knowledge, visible in her eyes but impossible to articulate; Europe ’51 leaves her groping toward either sainthood or insanity, confined to a monklike cell in a mental hospital; in Voyage to Italy, the experience of being separated from her husband, when a crowd unexpectedly surges during a religious procession, mysteriously rekindles her love for him.
These moments of grace — for that is what they are — can’t be filmed or dramatized in a conventional way, which would only lead to the postcard religiosity of The Song of Bernadette or The Greatest Story Ever Told. Instead, they occur off camera, in between shots, at moments when we are looking elsewhere or thinking of something else. They happen before we know they are happening, secured in a fierce, physical reality that would seem to preclude any kind of transcendence but which in fact is its vehicle.