Revisiting a Rossellini Classic to Find Resonances of Today


The 1950s are full of movies that were initially greeted, by critics and audiences, with indifference or derision, only to be hailed as masterpieces in hindsight. “Vertigo,” “The Searchers” and “The Sweet Smell of Success” are among the best-known examples of this kind of revisionism. Another, only slightly less famous, is Roberto Rossellini’s “Viaggio in Italia,” a film so maligned and neglected in 1955, the year of its American release, that it did not receive a review in The New York.
Better late than never. A restored digital version of “Voyage to Italy” (one of several English titles that have been used over the years) begins a nine-day run at Film Forum on Wednesday, which seems as good an occasion as any to update the critical record. As it happens, the treachery of time — the unwelcome intrusion of the past, the empty languor of the present, the terrifying uncertainty of the future — is one of Rossellini’s themes, and part of what makes this film, for all its charming glimpses of a bygone era, feel so unnervingly contemporary.
Its failure no doubt had something to do with the scandal that embroiled the movie’s director and its star, Ingrid Bergman, and also with the ideological volatility of Italian cultural life. In 1948, after seeing “Paisan” and “Rome: Open City,” Bergman wrote Rossellini a letter offering her services if he should “need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well.” While making “Stromboli,” they began an affair that ended both of their marriages and provoked the highly selective moral outrage of the American press. In his own country, Rossellini was attacked less for marital infidelity than for betraying the cause of neorealism, allowing his camera to stray from local social problems to Hollywood stars.

And yet the reality of postwar Italy is very much visible in “Voyage,” as is a strong intimation of the direction of Italian cinema in the coming years. The film follows Katherine and Alex Joyce (Bergman and George Sanders), a British couple who arrive in Naples to sell a piece of property belonging to a recently deceased and highly enigmatic relative known as Uncle Homer. That business transaction is never concluded, and is in any case a distraction from the luxurious stasis that envelops Alex and Katherine, a state that might be described as a blend of ennui and la dolce farniente.

The two languish for a while at a hotel and at Uncle Homer’s villa, where the frosty state of their relations fails to melt in the Mediterranean sun. Katherine spends her days sightseeing in the Museum of Archaeology and experiencing a tremor of anxiety at the Cave of the Cumaean Sibyl. Alexander takes an excursion to Capri, where he flirts and socializes.

Sanders later complained that “the story of the film was never understood at any time, by anyone, least of all the audience when the picture was released.” And he had a point, even though he may have missed Rossellini’s. “Voyage” is not driven by the usual machinery of plot and exposition, but rather by a succession of moods, an emotional logic alternately reflected and obscured by the picturesque surroundings. The rich symbolism of the Italian landscape — the volcanic pools at Vesuvius, the ruins of Pompeii, the vistas that have stirred the imagination of artists at least since Virgil — makes the emptiness of the Joyces’ marriage all the more palpable and painful. Their emotional and spiritual sterility contrasts with the fertility signified by the baby carriages and pregnant women Katherine encounters every time she ventures into Naples, and also by the religious procession of the film’s devastating final scene.

Rossellini’s way of dissolving narrative into atmosphere, of locating drama in the unspoken inner lives of his characters, anticipates some of what Michelangelo Antonioni would do a few years later in “L’Avventura.” “Voyage to Italy” is thus in the vanguard of what Pauline Kael would disparagingly call “come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe parties.” Some of us will never tire of those soirees, with their black-tied gloom and elegant suffering, and will therefore relish the beauty and melancholy of this voyage, along with its touristic snapshots and heart-tugging Neapolitan songs.

The Joyces, though their manners and modes of dress mark them as creatures of another, perhaps more refined age, are immediately recognizable in their loneliness, their cynicism and their thwarted desire to connect and to feel. It may be too late. “Voyage to Italy” takes place in a series of simultaneous aftermaths — of World War II, of a glorious ancient civilization, of Uncle Homer’s wild life, of whatever passion once united Katherine and Alex. And yet amid all this exhaustion it finds signs of vitality. In its time, this film represented the arrival of something new, and even now it can feel like a bulletin from the future.

Voyage to Italy
Directed by Roberto Rossellini; written by Vitaliano Brancati and Roberto Rossellini; director of photography, Enzo Serafin; edited by Jolanda Benvenuti; music by Renzo Rossellini; set design by Piero Filippone; costumes by Fernanda Gattinoni; produced by Adolfo Fossataro, Alfredo Guarini, Roberto Rossellini, Sveva-Junior and Italiafilm-SEC; released by Janus Films. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Ingrid Bergman (Katherine Joyce), George Sanders (Alexander Joyce), Maria Mauban (Marie), Anna Proclemer (the Prostitute), Paul Müller (Paul Dupont), Leslie Daniels (Tony Burton), Natalia Ray (Natalie Burton) and Jackie Frost (Betty).

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