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“Take The Hardest Path” – Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy”

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini at work on the set.

In July 2009, I wrote in Senses of Cinema about Rossellini’s remarkable Voyage to Italy that the film “was shot from 2 February through 30 April 1953, on a variety of locations throughout Italy, including Naples, Capri, Pompeii, and at the Titanus studios in Rome, and was a tempestuous production throughout. The plot is simple: an unhappily married couple, Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex Joyce (George Sanders) are traveling from London through Italy to Naples, where they have inherited a villa.

Their marriage is a shambles, and they quarrel constantly; indeed, it is hard to imagine a more ill suited couple in the history of cinema. Katherine, relatively young and vibrant, seems trapped in a loveless match with the ill-tempered, dour Alex, who thinks only of money, and openly flirts with other women while ignoring his wife. Katherine has made the journey not only to sell the villa, but also in the hope that the “voyage” will reignite the passion of their marriage; instead, as the trip becomes more complex, and fraught with delays and interruptions, Alex’s boredom and frustration turns to outright hostility towards his wife.

In desperation, Katherine recounts to her disaffected husband the tale of a former suitor who, long ago, has been passionately in love with her; but Alex is unmoved, and Katherine seems resigned to the fact that their marriage will end in divorce, as soon as the necessary papers for the sale of the villa have been signed. The couple decide to split up, and spend their remaining time in Naples separately; Katherine visits a series of natural wonders with a succession of paid, only professionally attentive Italian tour guides, while Alex seeks out the company of a group of British nationals vacationing in Capri.

Katherine’s time is nevertheless redolent of the state of her collapsing marriage; viewing the ruins of Pompeii, with human bodies still entombed in centuries-old ash, as well as witnessing first-hand a small volcanic eruption on a tour, Katherine seems lost, lonely, and disconnected from the world around her, yet at the same time she years for some sort of human compassion. Alex is clearly disinterested.

And yet, in the film’s final, unforgettable sequence, as the now-reunited, but still-quarreling couple watch a passing religious procession, they are seized with an unexpected emotion, and fervently embrace each other, declaring their love, and wondering how they could possibly have become so estranged. Their renewal of love is a miracle, entirely inexplicable by any conventional narrative standards; the entire film, indeed, has been consistently moving away from such a reconciliation.

Love appears to have conquered a seemingly irreparable emotional breakdown. It is one of the most unexpected and transcendent moments in not just all of Rossellini, but in all of cinema; as one might imagine, the ending was also highly controversial at the time of the film’s release, and remains so, because it seems to come out of thin air, rather than in response to any section or aspect of the film’s narrative exposition.”

Much of the film was improvised; often Rossellini didn’t really know which direction the film was going in. The actors, especially George Sanders, were often irritated by Rossellini’s seeming indecision during the production, but the director was searching for something through the film, something perhaps related to his difficult and ultimately doomed relationship with Ingrid Bergman, who worked with Rossellini in three of his films, and abandoned her Hollywood career to work with him in Italy.

As I observed back in 2009, “Voyage to Italy is a film in search of itself, a film that only knows its own conclusion when it appears, miraculously, in front of it, arriving at a final destination that no one in the audience could possibly have foreseen. And yet, the final moments of the film seem absolutely ‘right’; indeed, it seems to be the only possible conclusion to the film.” And yet this could not have been an easy path to take; rather, it was a jump into the void, with only the slightest idea of how the film would finally end. And yet only with such a quest can anything worthwhile be made; if you aren’t searching for something, then you are lost.

“When you don’t know which path to take, choose the hardest one.” – Roberto Rossellini

Voyage to Italy

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Roberto Rossellini went through a number of artistic “periods” in his life; his very early work for Mussolini’s propaganda machine at Cinecitta; his Neorealist work with Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948); his films with Ingrid Bergman, who collaborated with him on some of his greatest films of the 1950s, including Stomboli (1950) and Voyage to Italy; and his later TV films in the “historical” period, of which my favorite is Blaise Pascal.

All of his work is luminous and revelatory; here’s a brief essay I wrote on Voyage to Italy for Senses of Cinema 51, one of the most unexpected, perhaps, of all his films, for its narrative structure seems to be heading relentlessly in one direction for nearly the entire duration of the film, only to reverse itself with a moment of spiritual triumph in its final moments. It’s a stunning piece of work.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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