Saturday 11 August 2012

1,001 Films: "Voyage to Italy" (1953)

Roberto Rossellini's drama Voyage to Italy pivots on communication, and the absence of it. Troubled couple George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman travel out to Italy to oversee the restoration of a deceased relative's tumbledown villa, blind to the fact their marriage could do with some patching up itself. She's a sensual European, who uses the trip to catch up with nearby exhibitions and the work of local poets; he's a very brittle Brit, superficially suave and urbane, yet utterly unable to connect to the region's culture. The two keep up an awkward, mutually uncomprehending silence for the most part, broken only so that Sanders can declare he's able to "tell more about a man from the way he coughs than the way he speaks", while party guests speak of the mechanics of formal conversation and "compliments which hide the usual reproach". Bergman spends much of her screentime muttering to herself ("Silly old fool... all men are alike") or gazing out of the passenger side window at the women she suspects her husband of desiring, and the children they've never had, while in the film's most "shocking" sequence - you can almost hear the censors of 1954 gnashing their teeth - Sanders picks up a local prostitute and calls her a shameless hussy, safe in the knowledge she cannot understand him.

What's most noticeable is the way Rossellini plays off the travelogue business against the more pressing matter of a marriage on the verge of disintegration: very quickly, the film settles into a rhythm whereby the couple go their separate ways, and only seem to come back together in order to have another row. (They can't see eye-to-eye, because they never take the time to see the same things.) It's almost unique, in the sense this is a romance about adults who've already met cute and for whom that cuteness has long since worn off; arguably, it's as much a realist movie as anything in the director's filmography, compelled by the very real and very hard work it takes to maintain and prolong a loving relationship, and the circumstances that can lead to any such relationship falling apart. The last reel, famously set among the ruins of Pompeii, sees negatives (a hole in the ground, a pause in conversation) transformed into positives by sheer movie magic, but the expected reconciliation is agonisingly postponed: Bergman is still spitting out "I despise you" to her on-screen spouse only two minutes before the credits roll and the screen fades to black.

Journey to Italy is available on DVD through the BFI.


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