Jacques Rivette wrote in 1955 that Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy “opens a breach [that] all cinema, on pain of death, must pass through”. (1) This breach is evident from its very first shots, disconcertingly sudden and raw: a shaky, forward-driving view down a road into Naples; a faster, even less revealing glimpse of the roadside going by; and finally two stars, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, shipwrecked far from Hollywood, plainly out of their element in this plotless, not-quite-picaresque road-movie cruise in which they must express their deepest levels of character through terse banalities and simple, mundane gestures.
Noawadays, critics talk a lot about the comedy of remarriage, a genre in which couples somehow put their union to the test and, after many complications, work out a way to reaffirm it. Voyage in Italy is, like Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Emergency Kisses (1989) and The Abyss (1989), that rarer thing: a drama of remarriage, in which the spark of revitalisation must be found within the undramatic flow of daily togetherness.
The Joyces, Alex and Katherine, bored and resentful of each other, are in a state of suspension. Like in the novel and film of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (in which the couple never reunite), being “on holiday” leaves them disturbed, sometimes even distressed by the foreign culture with which they are surrounded. The food is different, sleep beckons at odd hours under the sun, music seeps in everywhere, there are encounters with strangers who offer distraction or temptation …
The couple have certainly made a journey to Italy, with the film dwelling on the cultural difference between themselves and the country they find themselves in. But the Italian title refers more exactly to a journey in or through Italy – a journey that takes place on many levels, both interior and exterior. As in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) – and later in Eyes Wide Shut – this troubled couple will temporarily part ways, each going on a separate drift around their new environment.
Alex’s wandering, and his inconsequential flirtations with various women, is the less evidently dramatic of the two journeys. He’s a jaded guy who protects himself with sarcasm and keeps his feelings buried. Katherine’s skin is thinner; her composure is disturbed both by memories of her own past, and the heady, chaotic atmosphere around her …
For there is, forcefully here, the presence of the landscape, the cities of Capri, Pompei … and especially Naples, the place that was once described so well by Asja Lacis and Walter Benjamin: “Porosity is the inexhaustible law of life in this city, reappearing everywhere. A grain of Sunday is hidden in each weekday. And how much weekday there is in this Sunday!” (2) Such a vision of porosity – Sunday and weekday, religious mysticism and the gritty everyday combined – is also a good description of Rossellini’s own earthy sense of spirituality.
Voyage to Italy typifies the radical turn in Rossellini’s work of the ‘50s, especially the films he made with wife Bergman: this is no longer social-issue neorealism, but an inner or emotional realism, strikingly modern, prefiguring the alienation theme in Antonioni and especially the Godard of Contempt (1963). But there is still a sense of documentary reality everywhere, in the views Katherine sees out her car, in the churches, the catacombs, the mud pools, the archaeological excavations … These sights are not handy metaphors: they are concrete reality, experiences upon which Rossellini and his team appear to have stumbled “in process”.
This insistent environment adds context, history and even mythology, a long view, to the personal, marital story. It brings the past to bear upon the present, just as all the characters endlessly recall previous, formative moments in their lives. And it places this one, small crisis into a great, cosmic cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
The ending of Voyage in Italy is often described as a miracle – and, literally, it juxtaposes what appears to be a sacred miracle with a scene of separation and reunion between Katherine and Alex.
The very idea for this final, cinematic clinch – two people torn apart by a surging crowd – has itself become a hoary old, dramatic cliché since 1953. But Rossellini invests it with a genuinely redemptive feeling, and a sense that second chances for married lovers are forever possible – if they search long enough, work hard enough, and are in the right place at the right moment for all the materials and elements of the world to aid in their togetherness.
Little is explained in Voyage in Italy, but everything is felt. And here is a film that can proudly end – can almost end, before one more, one last image of a passing, ordinary crowd – with a sweeping crane shot and the age-old declaration: “I love you”.
Note: for an extended, detailed treatment of the above ideas, listen to my audio commentary on the Voyage to Italy DVD, available on the British Film Institute Rossellini/Bergman box set of 2015; this commentary originally appeared on the now rare Madman (Australia) release of 2007.
MORE Rossellini: Paisà
1. Jacques Rivette (trans. Tom Milne), “Letter on Rossellini", in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma, The 1950s: Neorealism, Hollywood, New Wave (Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 192.
© Adrian Martin June 2003 / April 2015