Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy screens Saturday evening and Monday night at MoMA, as part of their Collaborations in the Collection series.
Rossellini, like Joyce, recovers the Odyssey in the modern world as an internal ascent to true love as mirrored and counterpointed by external meanderings, glimpses, diaristic fragments of real life that have only a echoic, alliterative relationship to each other. The echo, slanted, is of an American couple (Ingmar Bergman and George Sanders) in Italy on vacation and in exile: from each other, from old flames, from classic art and mythology petrified into tourist traps. “He gets to sit all day,” a bowed museum guide says about one Olympian statue, “while I have to stand.” Bergman, muttering, pretends to be asleep when her husband comes home drunk from a party: he thinks she’s asleep, she thinks she’s avoiding him, but it’s clear from his pause in the dark, her upturned eyes the moment before, that each waits for—and insists on—the other to make a move. At the climax, the most passive moment of all, an archaeological guide puts his cigarette into a steaming hole in the ground and in the background, in reaction, smoke—like a larger cigarette cloud from a larger hole—bellies from the ground. Until the final scene, nothing happens for 80 minutes except these two characters bickering pettily, tanning, and in moments alone, Bergman taking stock of hidden currents around her as if to find her place in a world moving on with or without them.
The film works as if by excavation. As in so much modernist lit, love, the past, and the natural world are the God-like sources to revitalize a daily life of habits that the protagonists struggle to reclaim amidst a routine existence. But what looks so fundamental to the French New Wave and however much current “contemplative cinema” is Rossellini’s own Hitchcockian—Joycean approach to the idea, his loving attention to routine and a distillation of characterization from overarching “character traits” (classic) into momentary consciousness and reaction (modern). In Rossellini, characters struggle for self-expression and deliverance from flesh but can only express themselves in the terms of their surroundings; they attempt to rebuff the world but only remain passive to it—until finally, gloriously so, they give themselves up to whatever unbidden impulses of their time and place. Threaded tenuously to the world by shot-reverse-shots of the things they see and hear and their reactions to them, Rossellini’s “characters,” no more nor less than the actors on travelogues, act in reaction. Leo McCarey had experimented progressively in the 30s and 40s with developing a movie’s emotional through-line by increasingly unmasked gestures of two people communicating physically what the form and language of the situation forbid—culminating in Bells of St. Mary’s, with Bergman. Rossellini then turns those reaction shots toward the entire world.
In other words, as Rossellini moves towards the conscious camera eye of his late films, his characters become camera surrogates, perspectives on the world, and Rossellini’s favorite method of exploration, like Hitchcock’s, is to put the characters in a car and match their refractive glimpses of the outside street—almost arbitrary at first, but building to a montage of mothers and children as Bergman recalls another regret in her life—with simple shots of their watching: passive to their own consciousness, led, like the audience, on an inexorable voyage to wherever, beyond control, watching a world they can’t belong to and that can’t see them, carried forward by the montage.
Filmed and famous as a home diary, the actors close enough and sidelong to the camera as to be nearly peripheral to the scenes and songs around them, Voyage has its own paratactic craft far from classical approximations of shot-reverse-shot perspective: axial cuts, pans against character movement, and the camera slowly revolving around classical-idealist statues (repeated in Godard’s Voyage adaptation, Contempt) in mimicry of Bergman’s movements but as if in a religious rite to bring them into the living, shifting dimensions of the modern world. The camera, a basic observer, suggests its own sense of responsiveness to a world seemingly a posteriori to its composition, as though it can blow up interesting details, turn to other sights, and explore objects of some curiosity by turning around them. Where in Hitchcock this “pure cinema” of perspectival camerawork is supposed to be wedded to characters’ consciousness—the way they move and the things they notice—Rossellini’s is its own form of tourist in a foreign world, his eyes and ears, and though pushed to full autonomy in later, zooming history films, his method—of not linking camera to subject—never aligns more appropriately with his subjects, also searching for an unknown destination.
As in Homer, as in Joyce, the only home the couple has is each other. Voyage ends with a self-declared miracle in the street—some man is Saved—that causes a traffic jam, the lovers’ separation in (and anonymous submission to) a crowd the sort they’d been avoiding the whole film in their cars, and finally, their reunion in a Borzage-like race to each other’s arms and forsaking of all the rest of the world. Rossellini doesn’t film likewise; he ends his film not on a moment of finality (the kiss) but in medias res as a traffic cop directs the crowd. Bergman and Sanders finally become incidental to the movie and the frame—this deflection to the background chorus, going about its business and ignorant of the heroes’ story, builds from last shots of Renoir’s Boudu, Toni, and La Marseillaise, as crowds sing and march on beyond the confines of the story while marking the processional habits of their class and time that the main characters generally attempted to transcend. The amazing thing is this final reconciliation between Borzage/classical idealism and Renoir/modernist relativity: a classic love in modern terms. Later, in Blaise Pascal, Rossellini shows Pascal, trying to contain himself, as he invents a calculator—a step toward glimpsing the face of God—and stumbles from his room to a farm courtyard, disperses a crowd of cackling geese on the way, and heads to the barn where a foal’s been born and the farmers couldn’t care less.
These things—Pascal thinking, geese waddling, foal born—coexist easily in Rossellini’s frame. In Voyage to Italy, as in Ordet from the same year, a series of small, routine miracles—natural phenomena like births and geysers, manmade ones like museum statues—precipitate a larger one—a lover’s reunion—that’s just as materially presented, endemic to a time and place, and elliptically fractioned into jump cuts, as though to endow the actual scene with a reality of its own now well beyond Rossellini’s hold. Nathaniel Dorsky writes lovingly about the moment: the couple is placed only as one detail among others, and come, like the traffic cop, to stand only for themselves. It is less a miracle than a recognition—as in McCarey’s closed-set terms—of a love that’s been present and demonstrative all along.
Rossellini’s films are like this, historically located passion plays, built on capturing evidence of cosmic conditions by testing its characters through everyday quandaries. Trouble’s afoot from the first scene in which Sanders asks Bergman if he can drive; her concern about a mosquito that hits the windshield and his posed apathy establish the chasm between them, but also, already, if only in their glances, their need to bridge it by expressions they don’t know. But the entire film is expressive in its recognition of true love as one clear-eyed fact among others, and clear-eyed facts as suggestive of love. As in Rossellini’s greatest films, its mysteriousness seems to come from its practicality, its dealing with an unknowable world as it’s known.