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Italian cinema, Melodrama

Rossellini #5: Reading Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954)

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This classic film by Roberto Rossellini was re-released in the UK on a new DCP in May. A more helpful English translation of the title than the usual ‘Voyage to Italy’ is ‘Travel in Italy’ or ‘Journey Through Italy’ as it covers the time spent by an English couple on a trip to the Naples region trying to come to terms with their own relationship and the impact of Italian culture. As in many of the Italian films of this period, there have been several versions of this film. In the version for the UK, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as the couple speak English. Italian characters speak Italian amongst themselves and some characters speak both languages.

One of the major issues in appraising the film in 2013 is the need to deal with its reception in the mid 1950s (it opened in Italy in 1954 and was seen in other countries over the next couple of years). In America the film flopped badly, but it is difficult to know how much this was associated with the scandal of the Bergman-Rossellini relationship, which was one of the biggest tabloid stories of its time. (Bergman and Rossellini had a child before Bergman’s divorce and her subsequent marriage to Rossellini.) The other problem in the US might have been cuts that robbed the film of some of its important scenes. By contrast, the film was highly praised by critics in France where the Cahiers du cinéma writers hailed it as the first ‘modern’ film. The enthusiasm of Godard, Truffaut et al was typically excessive and a more common reaction by popular audiences then (and to a certain extent ever since) was one of boredom because ‘nothing happens’.

It seems clear now that the Cahiers critics did have a point – and given the more favourable reception of similar films a few years later, Rossellini was once again ‘ahead of the curve’. The film is defiantly ‘unconventional’. José Luis Gaurner in his 1970 Studio Vista book on Rossellini puts the argument very well:

 . . . its subject [is] the breakup of a marriage, but it is not a tragedy. It is about reconciliation, but it is not a comedy. It revolves around Italy, but it is not a documentary . . . As a film about reality and time, it comes into the sphere of the essay. (Guarner 1970: 58)

This concept of an ‘essay’ refers us to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular – light on narrative pleasures but rich in ideas and explorations of culture and politics. This is the form of filmic ‘modernism’ that also leads towards Antonioni and others in the late 1950s and 1960s and which is still part of contemporary cinema (a film like Nuri Bilge Cyan’s Climates (2006) perhaps, or the films of Joanna Hogg such as Unrelated (2008) or Archipelago (2010)).

Rossellini is interested in the marriage between two people who are not Italian and how their relationship is affected by their exposure to Italian culture. This in itself suggests the urge to explore ‘reality’ rather than the familiar conventions of entertainment cinema. Although many couples have wonderful holidays abroad, sharing the delights of exposure to other cultures, holidays are also potentially difficult to negotiate. How do we know how different people (ourselves and our partners) will react to new situations? The usual tensions in a relationship are exposed in new situations. A Hollywood take on an Italian holiday is likely to develop as a romance or a thriller, but Rossellini is not interested in these kinds of narratives.

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

Casting, scripting and direction

Ingrid Bergman was by 1953 very familiar with her husband’s approach since she had already experienced two difficult and challenging roles in Stromboli and Europa ’51. On the other hand, Rossellini’s use of his wife/star had become almost obsessive (she wasn’t allowed to work for anyone else) and there had been aspects of the scripts of the earlier films which might in some ways have related to the Bergman-Rossellini marriage. As Katherine, Bergman was already under a certain pressure.

Rossellini cast George Sanders – one of several English actors working mainly on Hollywood productions – as Alex. Sanders had no idea of what to expect and he found Rossellini’s approach bewildering and frustrating. In interviews years later Rossellini claims that Sanders hated the way he was forced to work – and of course his discomfort is evident in his performance, which produces exactly what Rossellini wants.

Rossellini maintains that he had a very clear idea of the film he was going to make, but he refused to write it down as a script to give to his two stars. Instead he would supply the dialogue for the day’s shooting but would often change aspects of the shoot dependent on the ‘reality’ of the situation he found in the location. In one much discussed scene Rossellini was tipped off that a ‘discovery’ was about to be unveiled in the archaeological work in Pompeii. He re-organised that day’s shooting and Bergman and Saunders were required to respond to the events as they unfolded. How much of this was contrived (and embellished in later interviews) is open to conjecture but it is certainly true that the film includes several scenes in which Bergman and sometimes Sanders are confronted with aspects of Italian antiquity as well as the Catholic rituals of Neapolitan life, sometimes with quite disturbing results.

In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Rossellini also used the language differences between Bergman/Sanders and the local people who act as servants in the large house where the couple are staying (selling the house which is a bequest by ‘Uncle Homer’ is the ostensible purpose of the visit to Italy). Far from ‘nothing happening’, the narrative is a tightly-wound structure in which the tension comes from the couple’s relationship with each other and the unsettling effects of the environment on each of them separately and together. Rossellini and his cinematographer Enzo Serafin manage to frame the central characters such that the mise en scène is both ‘realist’ and ‘expressionist’, especially in the several scenes where Katherine visits the classical sites of the region and its museums. (See the poster at the top of this piece in which Katherine is shown to be shocked by the eroticism of some of the statuary.)

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

SPOILER

Reading the closing sequence

The whole film up until the last sequence appears to be about the disintegration of a marriage. In fact some of the English titles used by distributors makes this explicit. Yet from the comments above it should be clear that the characters are actually learning something about themselves and each other because of the impact of the ‘otherness’ of Italy. The last two sequences involve the visit to Pompeii when Katherine is overwhelmed by the discovery of the figures of a man and woman miraculously ‘discovered’ in the lava and then finally the car journey which ends with the couple trapped in the crowds for a religious procession.

In Sight and Sound July 2013, Brad Stevens offers a reading of the ending of the film which places it in the small town of Maiori on the Amalfi coast some distance from Naples. Maiori has been the setting for several Rossellini sequences and holds a film festival with a Rossellini prize according to its Wikipedia entry. However, the implication is that the couple are driving through the outskirts of Naples and this is how André Bazin analyses the closing sequence. This isn’t a documentary, so Rossellini simply chooses a suitable location and what is important is that Alex and Katherine find themselves trapped in the crowds in a street where a religious procession is taking place. They are forced to stop their car and get out and in the mêlée that surrounds them as believers rush towards the effigy of a saint carried in the procession, Katherine is separated from Alex. When he realises what has happened, Alex struggles to find her and when they are re-united something miraculous does indeed happen.

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

Throughout the closing scenes Katherine has become more emotional while Alex appears to be repressing his emotions – though he says that he has been ‘moved’ by the discovery of the figures at Pompeii. In the previous sequence when Katherine visits Naples with the wife of the agent who is looking after the house, she keeps noticing the number of pregnant women on the streets and the number of women pushing prams. It’s as if there is an explosion of fertility. Later when she and Alex discuss divorce, she wonders if it would have helped if they had children. This seems like an obvious set of narrative connections but Rossellini presents them in a convincingly seamless way – we have to work to make the connections and reflect upon them. The procession which eventually ensnares the couple is, according to Bazin in an essay entitled ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (1955), one of the annual events associated with Saint Januarius, patron saint of Naples. The local people clearly believe in the restorative powers of the saint and we see a man gesticulating as if he is pleading for/celebrating relief from poor eyesight. Bazin suggests that what we have seen throughout the film is a subjective view of the local environment by Katherine:

“It is Naples ‘filtered’ through the consciousness of the heroine. If the landscape is bare and confined, it is because the consciousness of an ordinary bourgeoisie itself suffers from great spiritual poverty. Nevertheless, the Naples of the film is not false (which it could easily be with the Naples of a documentary three hours long). It is rather a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness. We realise now that the attitude which Rossellini takes towards his characters and their geographical and social setting is, at one remove, the attitude of his heroine towards Naples – the difference being that his awareness is that of a highly cultured artist and, in my opinion, an artist of rare spiritual vitality.” (Bazin 1971: 98-9)

In the final scene Katherine can ‘see’ another future – and Alex is finally moved to see with Katherine. Whether this will help to save the marriage is another question – which Rossellini leaves open. His panning camera eventually turns away from the couple and the film finally ends suddenly with one of the bandsmen in the background looking offscreen. It is this framing that Brad Stevens discusses in Sight & Sound. Stevens make the excellent point that this ending with its last glimpse of the bandsman, emphasises for the audience that Katherine and Alex are just another couple amidst the throng of people. Just as Katherine and Alex leave the protective shied/cage of their car, we leave the protected viewing position in which the two characters are privileged and rejoin the ‘real world’. I’ve watched the ending a few times to check these ideas and although I take Stevens’ point, two other observations interest me. One is the camera movements that are both ‘required’ in order to represent the narrative space and also ‘expressionist/symbolic’ in underlining the distance from the events felt by the audience. Rossellini has a camera placed higher up in order to see the procession in the distance. This position also allows us to look down on Katherine and Alex and to see how they are surrounded by people. This isn’t camerawork that we would associate with realist modes (since there is nobody in the scene who could have this perspective) and it would require going back over Rossellini’s earlier films to evaluate if it is a consistent aspect of his style. The second observation emphasises the understanding that Rossellini has taken his actors and crew into a ‘real’ street procession. Just behind Alex and Katherine when they get out of the car are two characters dressed in white suits/coats with white headdresses that might be turbans or something similar. The two men appear to be Indian or African and one is holding a paper cup which might contain crushed ice. I wonder if they are selling ice cream or a cold drink like sugarcane juice? Were traders like this common on the Amalfi coast in the 1950s? Any help on this is appreciated. What the presence of these two does do is to reinforce that sense of a story taking place in a ‘real’ Italy.

If you can find this in a cinema, please go and see it. If you can’t make the big screen, a DVD/Blu-ray package is available from the BFI. Here is a link to Moviemail’s offer.

References

Bazin, Andre (1971) ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (originally published in Cinema Nouvo, August 1955) What is Cinema?, Vol II, Berkeley: University of California Press

Gaurner, José Luis (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

BFI link to Geoff Andrew on Viaggio in Italia and the Neo-realism Season in London.

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