Saturday, September 20, 2008

Target #232: Viaggio in Italia / Voyage in Italy (1954, Roberto Rossellini)

TSPDT placing: #81
Directed by: Roberto Rossellini
Written by: Vitaliano Brancati (story), Roberto Rossellini (story)
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Maria Mauban, Paul Muller, Anna Proclemer, Anthony La Penna, Natalia Ray

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 Only]

Even with the English language and two stars from Hollywood, Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy (1954) immediately distinguishes itself from every romantic drama to have ever come out of the United States. Rossellini was an Italian, and those Italians had a style that was all their own. The film opens with moving footage along a rough road, the camera mounted on the main characters' automobile. Shots like this lack the sheer smoothness and polish of Hollywood productions – which probably would have filmed everything before a rear-projection screen, anyway – and add an essential crudeness that breathes real-life into the settings and story; these are the lingering traces of Italian neorealism, which, by 1954, had already suffered an abrupt decline in popularity. Ingrid Bergman, then the director's wife, and George Sanders plays Katherine and Alex Joyce, a British couple who travel to Italy for a business/leisure trip. However, this disruption of their typical marital routine brings to the surface the couple's pressing conflicts and incompatibilities. Will the wonders of Naples sever or rejuvenate their love for each other?

Voyage in Italy is one of those pictures where nothing much happens, at least on the surface. However, this film is a narrow stream that runs deep. Behind every seemingly-inconsequential scene, every awkward glance, every moment of banal interaction, there lies the key to Katherine and Alex's marriage, and the reasons why it's falling apart. Katherine does a lot of lonely driving in Naples, observing the everyday comings-and-goings of the local folk from the vantage point of a passive, almost-nonexistent outsider. She counts the number of pregnant women in the street, and wonders dolefully whether or not her own refusal to bear children has torn apart her marriage. Alex, meanwhile, skirts the borders of infidelity, elevating his boredom by charming beautiful young ladies (none as beautiful as Bergman, it must be said) but thankfully pulling back at the crucial moment. If one were so inclined, the film also works just as well as a travelogue of sorts, exploring, with exquisite detail, the museums of Naples and Pompeii, and the Italian fascination with the dead.

By 1954, Ingrid Bergman had spent several years working in Italy, after her marital scandal with Rossellini temporarily lost her favour with American audiences. Here, as lovely as ever, she gives a subtle and touching performance, an unappreciated wife disillusioned by the lack of love in her marriage. George Sanders, the roguishly charismatic male suitor in countless 1940s dramas, here achieves a mature, refined level of charm, such that we're not surprised at his ability to woo even the younger ladies. Through their separate travels in Italy, both characters attain a catharsis of sorts, the focus to finally make a clear decision about the future of their relationship together. This leads to a simple but wonderful exchange of dialogue outside the Pompeii excavation site ("Life is so short"; "that's why one should make the most of it"), which seems as good a reason as any for the pair to abandon their seemingly-doomed marriage and start afresh. However, Hollywood sensibility here prevails over Rossellini's neorealism roots, and the realisation that life is fleeting instead encourages Katherine and Alex to reaffirm their love for each other.

Currently my #5 film of 1954:
1) Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) Animal Farm (Joy Batchelor, John Halas)
3) Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Sabrina (Billy Wilder)
5) Viaggio in Italia {Voyage in Italy} (Roberto Rossellini)

What others have said:

"A magical love story that is beautifully told without one false note. It makes the best of its dead time, more so than any other film of this high quality has ever done before. Its passionate conclusion is still moving even at this date some fifty years after its release. This is Roberto Rossellini's finest film... It lulls you with its ordinary scenario where not much seems to be happening, but after a while the stunning historical Mediterranean landscape becomes part of the story and a seemingly loveless couple headed for a divorce finds hope again as their new spiritual surroundings brings them a renewal of love."
Dennis Schwartz, 2006

"Roberto Rossellini's finest fiction film... and unmistakably one of the great achievements of the art. Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play a long-married British couple grown restless and uncommunicative. On a trip to Italy to dispose of a piece of property, they find their boredom thrown into relief by the Mediterranean landscape--its vitality (Naples) and its desolation (Pompeii). But suddenly, in one of the moments that only Rossellini can film, something lights inside them, and their love is renewed as a bond of the spirit. A crucial work, truthful and mysterious."
Dave Kehr

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