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Stromboli (1998)

Courtesy of Christopher Newby

Main image of Stromboli (1998)
16mm, black and white, 10 mins
DirectorChris Newby
ProductionDan Films
CompaniesArts Council of England
Filmed byChris Newby

An elliptical portrait of the Sicilian volcanic island.

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According to the director's namesake, the travel writer Eric Newby, the Aeolian island of Stromboli offers the Mediterranean's "greatest free show apart from the Pyramids, and even smellier than them". It's home to the world's most continuously active volcano, typically erupting every twenty minutes or so, spewing molten lava and gas hundreds of feet into the air. Unsurprisingly, it has frequently been drawn on by artists in search of often metaphorical inspiration, including Jules Verne (the 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and Roberto Rossellini (the 1950 Italian film Stromboli).

Chris Newby's portrait of Stromboli is entirely wordless and impressionistic, drawing parallels between the violent volcanic eruptions and the rough seas surrounding the island, but intercutting them with the much more tranquil life experienced by the island's flora and fauna. Its economy is based around the normally sedate pursuits of fishing and net repair, while the roads are so narrow that small motorised scooters are the most viable means of rapid transportation. The sound of local music-making (the formality of church hymns and religious chants contrasted with vocal and instrumental folk tunes) and the sea crashing against rocky outcrops is paralleled by heavy breathing from an unspecified source, as though the island was itself a living entity.

In this environment, the shots of gravestones gain added potency: these people clearly haven't been interred in undisturbed ground, and since several of the cemetery photographs appear to have melted from the heat, one can only imagine what has happened to the bodies. Walls are cracked and scarred, and at times the film image itself appears to flicker and catch fire, as though the essence of Stromboli has penetrated the celluloid between exposure and processing. Throughout the film, ash-grey surroundings are offset by patches of brilliant colour, leading to a final coruscating sequence where natural and artificial fireworks combine with images of flowers so rapidly cut as to make them appear to be exploding in sympathy. Newby would refine this technique in his 2001 short Flicker.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included on the BFI DVD of Anchoress.

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Newby, Chris (1957-)