This movie's plot is pretty straightforward: a rich English couple journeys to Naples where they must deal with the sale of their late uncle's villa. Both are very intelligent, and their marriage seems to have reached a dead end. He toys with the idea of an affair, and wanders over to Capri, which, by the way, is not a good place for any married man. She also wanders, alone and depressed, through Naples' museums and old churchs. Childless, she fixates on Italian women with their children, and struggles to deal with her emotions before all the pregnant women surrounding her. When the two are together they argue, though without any great passion, and their conversations are filled with broken pauses and incomplete sentences. At the very nadir of their marriage's collapse the director begins nudging them into a series of recognitions, and the film's underlying purpose is slowly revealed: how and by what means such a hopeless situation, and with it each of them can be saved.
Roberto Rossellini was one of the great figures of modern film. A flamboyant and maddening intellectual, a person of almost superhuman passion, he devoured people by the score as he swept through life, leaving behind a shock wave of stunned and confused reactions in his wake. Trying to pigeon hole him as a neo-realistic, or any other number of isms, fails utterly to capture the scope, range and originality of his work.
This 1953 film, Viaggio in Italia, this study of a marriage in crisis, couldn't on the surface be more different, more opposite in overall tone and style of acting from the films Rossellini first made his mark with, the extroverted historical group narratives of his Roman films of the occupation. Instead of laying emotion on with a trowel, as was the case with Open City, here the director seems to move ever back, constantly removing himself and his story from any connection with pointed observation. Yet there remains a penchant for a documentary style, here quite deliberately unburdened by any pressing concerns of plot. We know and understand this is a movie, but Rossellini posits a paradox of plausibilty: is this in fact what daily life looks like, or must we read what we see as merely emblematic of inner struggles here surfacing into our view?
To accomplish this balancing act Rossellini enlists his two principles, George Sanders and Rossellini's then wife, Ingrid Bergman, into downplaying scene after scene as they go through the motions of the Joyces, the disquietingly dsyfunctional English couple who have come to Italy for an extended vacation. Sanders, always an actor confortable with reserve, is uncanny as the proud and hurt husband - his light touch all but escapes notice, and whenever called for he and the director catch just the right look or gesture of his character's malaise. Bergman's role was more challenging, and her character's plight, facing intense emotional insecurity, isolation, and ensuing desparation, is the true center of the movie. Somehow she has to break character, yet do so in a series of realizations, and ever so naturally as to not fall over into melodrama. Her full range as an actress comes out, her Katherine moves us not by any great force of personal courage, but through her rediscoveries of the wonders of life she has thought she'd lost. Her final overwhelming Saint-like release marks this as one of her strongest and most finely graded performances.
Many modern viewers may be bored watching the ennui of these two struggle through such a flat existence, the end result of a marriage/relationship long lost through mutual emotional malnourishment. Many might want this film to do SOMETHING! ANYTHING! Get a divorce they might say! Have an affair! But that is exactly the reaction Rossellini refuses. His film offers a far more profound response to the central conundrums of a modern relationship, and he never strays from the path he has taken, even as he almost mercilessly exposes his two protagonists, and denies them respite from their trapped universe. Rossellini's moral universe does not play to the balcony.
And slowly, as these two lost souls move, the background of Italy, the foreign world in which they are traveling, begins to assert its presence into their lives. Handled by anyone else this story might have taken on a cheap, sentimental manner. Rossellini magically floats his story free of such tawdry sensibilites. He balances his storyline with the mythic underpinnings of all lost lives in countless tiny seemingingly casual, yet fitting details, details of life and regeneration previously passed over by his couple, and now seen, emerging out into the light of day. For Katherine and Alex, with neither fallback or bridge themselves, must discover these things outside their own existences. The film builds slowly and imperceptibly as their almost zombie-like inertia and confusion is first confronted, then understood in the changing force that is Italy. The discovery of love's and life's mortality hits an emotionally weakened Katherine with brutal impact when she witnesses the unveiling of the Pompeiian couple's last dying embrace. The fullness of what was also once hers and her husbands is thrown into her consciousness and she breaks down.
Yet Katherine's emotional collapse also marks her start to acceptance and deliverance. Rossellini now pulls one strand of life after another into his divine tapestry. Through this building stream of epiphanies the film reaches an emotional intensity rare in any film, the more so after Rossellini's subdued telling of their lives. It finally reaches a torrent in the collative finale, as the couple are pulled into the rush of the living by the frenzied crowd of worshippers.
Rossellini is both a moralist and a very devout religious man - but it would be a mistake to apply these terms in anything but the most open and far-reaching ways. This film cannot be mistaken for anything less than a testament of faith, faith in the human capacity - and need - for spirituality, and an unflinching faith in every person's sustainablity through those they love and human connectedness in toto. Rossellini's astonishing power for empathy for those who most need it is at the heart of all his films, and is what makes this possibly his most personal creation.
The film's two leads speak in English, while practically everyone else, this being Italy after all, speaks Italian. This langauge gap ironically plays up and off the Joyce's situation: For all the sumptious beauty of the surrounding Italian countryside, they might just as well be trapped together on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea. When the burden of their situations becomes too stifling they leave themselves, and begin the interaction with Italy which finally begins their healing, reopens their talk, and renews their commitment to each other.
One of the greatest of all films.