Friday, February 25, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Voyage in Italy (1954)

Voyage in Italy (1954) ****
Directed by:
Roberto Rossellini.
Written by: Vitaliano Brancati & Roberto Rossellini.
Starring: Ingrid Bergman (Katherine Joyce), George Sanders (Alex Joyce), Maria Mauban (Marie), Anna Proclemer (La prostitute), Paul Müller (Paul Dupont), Anthony La Penna (Tony Burton), Natalia Ray (Natalie Burton), Jackie Frost (Betty).

Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy was reviled by critics upon it release in 1954. For people in Hollywood, it represented star Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini’ sins of adultery – that led Bergman to be blackballed in America for years. For fans of Rossellini, it was seen as another sellout from one of the founders of the neo-realist movement, who at the end of WWII, created some of Italy’s best films ever, by shooting on real locations, with non-professional actors. How much further away from films like Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero could Rossellini get than making a film with stars like Bergman and George Sanders? But like many America films which were scorned upon release, the cause of the film was taken up by the young critics (who would go on to form the French New Wave filmmakers) of Cahiers du Cinema – and now Voyage in Italy is looked upon as the masterpiece it really is.

We meet Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex (George Sanders), a childless, British married couple, late in their long car journey from London to Naples, where they are going to see the expansive villa that Uncle Homer has left them. We gather the journey has not gone well so far – as they already seem bitter and angry at each other. They are civil, and yet their every comment to each other seems to be aimed to cut into the other person. He is bitter that they didn’t fly to Naples – if they did, he could already be back in London attending to his business. She is bitter that he is not making an effort to make this into a nice vacation.

Things get worse in Naples, as the two become even more isolated from each other. She talks about a good friend who recently died – a poet, who once risked his life to see her – the reason being clear that he was once a lover of hers. He cruelly dismisses the poet as a fool, and then talks about a woman they ran into the night before that he knows “quite well”. They are using their past lovers – whether real or imagined to hurt each other. Things get even worse when he goes to Capri, to see his friends – and tries unsuccessfully to seduce a female friend, and then considers picking up a prostitute. Meanwhile, Bergman wanders around Naples, taking on tour guides to see all the historic sites. These journeys apart drive the wedge deeper in between them than ever before – a wedge they finally acknowledge when he returns and they agree to a divorce. But then the final scenes come, and they are driven close together again – and there is at least momentary hope for them.

Much of Voyage in Italy is about what is left unsaid between these two. Their early scenes together are all about what is buried in their conversation to each other – seemingly civil conversations designed to hurt. Katherine is not quite as good at this as Alex is – he is better in his ability to be cruel, and at his ability to cover up his hurt feelings, which is something she cannot do. Their journeys apart have the opposite effect on them – with Sanders going further in his attempts to hurt Bergman, although he finds he cannot go through with actually doing what he says. Meanwhile, she feels dwarfed by the history around her. When they reach Pompeii, and see the couple who died holding hands, it is finally too much for her.

Rossellini was a master filmmaker. I think here his major accomplishment is in the way he wrote the screenplay and directed Bergman and Sanders in how to play it. Here is an example where you need professional actors. The non-professionals used in the neo-realist films were excellent precisely because they were direct and playing themselves. Here, where everything is left unsaid, it has to be communicated another way – and you need actors like Bergman and Sanders to make it work. Both of these Actors had won Oscars at the time they made this film – and here they show why.

What does the last scene in the film really mean? To many, it represents hope, as the two come together in a crowd, and admit they still love each other, and don’t want a divorce. But how real is that? Bergman and Sanders do an excellent job at convincing us that at that moment, they both believe it. But based on what we have seen before, I am not so sure it is anything more than a fleeting moment. Perhaps there is hope for these two – but I wouldn’t count on it.

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