Monday, May 12, 2014

Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)

On the occasion of Roberto Rossellini's May 8 birthday (I'm late, I know), a reworking and expansion of an old post (warning: story and plot twists of Stromboli, Europa '51, Journey to Italy and The Flowers of St. Francis discussed in detail)

Cinema is dead

Simplest description of Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy (Viaggo in Italia, 1954): two Northern Europeans' odyssey through the mind and sensibility of a Southern European filmmaker. Second simplest description: the fracture and eventual disintegration of a middle-class marriage.

The second was what I was thinking when I thought: "This would make for an interesting double feature with Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut." Both tell of a jealous spouse wandering a strange city, one for sex, the other for--we know not what exactly, and neither (we suspect) does she; both have wife reveal to husband a secret former admirer or fantasy figure, an episode possibly inspired by Joyce's "The Dead," where wife Gretta tells husband Gabriel of a long-ago passion (in turn inspired by a similar episode in the writer's life, when he was shamed by wife Nora's confession). Call this Rossellini's sequel of sorts to Joyce's story--what happens after she tells her tale? 

Kubrick's film is more explicit--more nudity, more stylized performances, an elaborate comic assault on the adult white male's sexual complacency. Rossellini's by contrast is all understatement--you need to watch and listen carefully to the film's opening, as Alex and Katherine (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) Joyce (a tribute to the writer?) drive through the Italian countryside, to realize you're following a couple deeply unhappy with each other. 

First we see of Alex he's bored, falling asleep (an instant read, if you like, of the marriage's emotional temperature); they talk politely to each other--too politely ("Do you mind if I drive?"--imagine how estranged a couple has to be for the husband to say that). When Alex starts talking business Katherine rolls her eyes (you can see her level of interest); later she tells him: "I didn't realize spending time alone with me would bore you so much." She seals their doom with the ominous observation that "This is the first time we've been really alone ever since we were married." Alex hopes to stay in Italy with his wife long enough to sell a villa willed to him by his Uncle Mike; he doesn't realize the visit will involve far more intricate negotiations, with higher, life-changing stakes.

The breakdown proceeds in measured increments. Katherine tells her story (about her admirer), Alex mockingly responds (he's a more malevolent version of Joyce's Gabriel); she leaves on her own to visit the sights and museums of Naples. At one party Katherine glares at Alex as he flirts with a woman; at another Alex glares back when Katherine laughs with a group of men. They fight (he accuses her of being "overly dramatic and ridiculously romantic;" she thinks he's full of "skepticism and irony"), and this time it's Alex who leaves for Capri to pursue the real estate deal--maybe meet with his friends.

Call Alex's odyssey a comedy of errors. He meets Marie (Maria Mauban), and is her ardent companion till she reveals that she's just reconciled with her husband; he then meets an unnamed prostitute (Anna Proclemer) who turns out to be even more "overly dramatic and ridiculously romantic" (not to mention morbid) than Katherine. Like Tom Cruise's Dr. Harford in Kubrick's film Alex wants it, badly; he's just not getting any.

Katherine's journey is more solitary and less verbose, with only tour guides and statues for company. Now I've heard an argument that during the museum visits the director tries to visually subjugate his wife (Bergman left husband and daughter to marry Rossellini, a scandal of international proportions) by surrounding her with oversized masculine nakedness. Not sure I agree: yes, many of the statuary are tall and impressively, even intimidatingly, muscled (though some are women, and others have an androgynous beauty), yes he lights and shoots them in a way that's more than a little threatening (the camera rushes at a discus thrower with vivid pale eyes, creating the impression that he's lunging at Katherine; cut to a different angle and as she turns away, he--a Weeping Angel, if you like--appears to reach out to clutch at her hair). 

More important for me--and, I think, for Rossellini--is Katherine's reaction: she is perturbed but stands her ground, she stares down the statues; Rossellini's threat (if such was his intention) is exposed as a bluff. What finally unsettles Katherine is no mere man--but more on that later.

A sidenote: At one point Katherine's guide mentions satyrs. "Fortunately they all died out," he states, deadpan; "they were very dangerous." Katherine accepts this information quietly, as if ignorant--or uncaring--of its veracity. The guide does go on to correctly identify various Roman emperors and the Farnese Hercules with its massive knotted tree trunk of a back. Was he (or Rossellini) pulling Katherine's (or our) leg with that satyr story? Wouldn't know, but it's a bizarre moment Rossellini doesn't really explain, comment on, or develop further. 

Considering how stylized the cinema of alienation eventually became in the hands of Antonioni and Kubrick, it's fascinating to see how Rossellini develops the original model. Both Kubrick and Rossellini use the surrounding landscape to shape their protagonists' reactions--Kubrick shot on a gigantic estate with dozens of beautifully naked masked women (why masked and naked? Did he really need the sensual anonymity, or parody of same?); Rossellini had Rome. I'd say of the two Rossellini had the advantage.

Katherine visits the Cimitero delle Fontanelle, an underground necropolis where narrow passages widen into cathedral-sized chambers with row upon row of grinning skulls flanked by the occasional pew (it's as if to the obscenity of death is added the obscenity of inviting you to worship death). The imagery is overwhelming, though not immediately so; you wander with her along the passages, become familiar with the narrow corridors before the walls fall away and the skulls multiply beyond counting. Again, like Kubrick or Antonioni, Rossellini focuses on space and movement, only his focus is more integrated into the narrative (Katherine  confronted with Rome's rich pageant of history and death is forced to put her troubled marriage in perspective)--so integrated and understated most viewers unfortunately miss it.  

Rossellini brings husband and wife back together for an even more powerful reminder of death: an archeologist in Pompeii pours plaster of Paris into the empty spaces found in the dead city's groundsspaces suddenly recognized for what they are: a negative recording of man's presence--a record of his absence, rather. When the plaster dries the dirt is brushed away, the dead revealed--a couple, maybe married, maybe even to each other, caught at the moment of expiring in each others' arms (decades later, in an act of epic effrontery, Paul W.S. Anderson takes this image and weaves an entire film around it). Katherine is devastated at the sight, demands to be taken home; Alex is similarly moved. They've just been reminded of the ravenous nature of death, told without a direct word spoken on the subject (just some inane babble on the plaster-of-Paris process) that sometimes you don't even leave a body behind. 

Following this scene is a prolonged and totally unnecessary sequence where husband and wife walk from the dig to their parked car--unnecessary only if you haven't yet tuned in to Rossellini's carefully calibrated sensibility. As Katherine and Alex carefully climb steps, turn corners, clamber through rubble, occasionally peer about them to regain their bearings (Alex sometimes leading, sometimes assisting his wife; Katherine sometimes setting the pace, sometimes looking back) the two confess thoughts and feelings, discuss issues, occasionally snipe at each other. In effect the walk to the car is a visual and verbal precis of their marriage (and the film) to date, the emotional terrain considerably more treacherous than the physical

As for the ending (avoid remainder of article if you intend to watch the film)--I remember a debate where one critic asserted that "the entire film was about the defanging of the Bergman character." 

A defender responded "no, it isn't." 

"Yes, it is." 

I couldn't resist speaking up: "It's about the traffic cop!"

"What traffic cop?"

"Towards the end, the officer directing traffic. He's the last thing we see, not the couple.

"I'm guessing Rossellini saw the ending in terms of 'do they get back together or don't they?' I'm thinking he considers their separation the easy answer--it's the direction towards which the film has been moving, what they would have done if people are by nature unchanging, subject to narrative inertia."

But are people so unyielding? This is Rossellini, a master of neorealism, of the presentation of life as it is lived, not stylized in a drama. A filmmaker who has repeatedly tried to bend or break narrative's iron will--through digressions (the walk back to the car), through nonverbal sequences (Alex sneaking past Katherine late at night, a comic gem of a passage full of nervously waving feelers and tense pauses). 

"So, possibly, Rossellini asks: what if they don't do the expected thing? What if in a moment of panic they cling to each other because the alternative seems so much more frightening?

"So Rossellini prepares his ending. He prefaces it with a religious festival complete with marching band, and during the festivities introduces a sudden miracle over which the faithful--the same folk who might accept or even demand such an ending--become hysterical. Film ends with the cop searching the crowd, looking sternly about for trouble (okay, two slipped by me, but no more: I got my eye on you!).

"It's not a happy ending, or at least I don't think it's a happy ending and what's more I don't think Rossellini thinks so either. It introduces hope and there's nothing in the world more cruel."

Hope cruel? Think about it--if they separate that's it; the marriage is done with and they can move on with their lives. If they stay together they only subject themselves to further disappointment, greater uncertainty, endless suffering. Hope is the cruelest torment of all, mainly because it encourages us to not give up; we go with eyes wide open and arms spread wide, to better accept the coming knives. 

Recall the film's cruder if more overtly comic sister work, Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut: the errant Dr. Harford retreats from seeking sexual satisfaction outside of marriage to settling for domestic bliss. He ends not with a gaggle of girls going down on him but with his wife and daughter flanking him on a Christmas shopping spree. At one point the wife, who has learned of the attempted infidelity from the husband and apparently forgiven all (yeah, right), informs him with magnanimous tenderness and proprietary authority: "you know there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible."

"What's that?"


Presumably the wife will become pregnant after the session; presumably the coming child will bind doctor and wife closer together. That last word is no spousal promise of sexual ecstasies to come; that's the sound of domestic captivity's barred door clanging shut, forever.

I know, I know; this is the kind of modernist philosophy Dostoevsky parodied in "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. But Dostoevsky needed a contrast for the trajectory he planned for Dmitri Karamazov--in effect Dostoevsky was buying our belief in Dmitri's redemption with a generous dose of nihilism. Rossellini (who like the Inquisitor suggests that uncertainty is the root of all unhappiness) needs a similarly cynical approach if he's to persuade us to accept his treatise on relationships and marriage; if he's to persuade us to accept his resolution to the couple's dilemma; if he is to save his own marriage to Bergman, which (echoing the film, which echoes the story, which echoes the author's life) is also troubled--the last possibly being his objective all along: to chart, mediate, depict a believable way for them to go on living with each other (he failed; they sued for legal separation some three years later). 

And yet one can't help but feel for this doomed effort. Rossellini applied his not inconsiderable  powers to portray a marriage saved (however patchwork the repair), and strangely the single most persuasive element in the film isn't the strategies and ruses, isn't Rossellini's precise yet casually executed (impossible combination!) detailwork, but his reserve.

There's a similar moment in his The Flowers of St. Francis: Ginepro (Severino Pisacane) confronts Nicolaio (Rossellini alumnus Aldo Fabrizi) and it's completely in Nicolaio's power to destroy Ginepro--only he doesn't. Nicolaio fumes and glowers, his face going through all kinds of frightening contortions, his thumbs press hard against the latter's eyes, but he can't bring himself to dig in. 

And Rossellini doesn't explain; he just allows the scene to play out without dialogue, almost without sound (just the occasional growl from Nicolaio). Oh, there are plenty of clues but no official interpretation--Rossellini leaves it to us to decide what happened in that moment, or even if the moment should have happened at all.

Same applies in this film, I think. Rossellini leads us to this point, preparing us along the way for the unlikeliest outcomes; pulls it off; leaves the smoking remains for us to ponder. He's done this often enough, and not just in St. Francis--in Stromboli nature convulses around Karin (Bergman in her first-ever collaboration with her husband) and we have some indication of inner turmoil from her ever-expressive face, but as to exactly what she's thinking, what conclusions she's formed, what action she's decided to take--or if she's made any decision at all--not a clue (Rossellini ends the film right there). In Europa '51 we aren't even given a definite moment: we know the process started with the death of Irene's (Bergman, again) child, but her transformation is so attenuated yet so complete you can't put a finger on exactly where, or when; late in the film she's asked point-blank, and her answer is nearly incoherent--she talks of self-hatred, which would  account for initial impulses but wouldn't account for everything.

It's not that Rossellini doesn't know what to present, or lacks the skill--his transmutations in Stromboli and Europa are too well modulated, are set at arm's length from one's emotions (you're fascinated but not overwhelmed); rather, I suspect he has too much respect to offer some neatly tailored explanation for us to easily dismiss. His films often contain odd fractures in their narrative, cracks which he fails to fill in with logic or narrative exposition; as we watch we come to realize--in a mini-epiphany mirroring Irene's, Karin's, Katherine's--that those cracks are our best chance of catching a glimpse of the enigma at the center of his films. 

Or words to that effect. If Rossellini struggles to express the ineffable (a thing Bresson and Malick still attempt, so many years later), I'm not sure I'm any better equipped to put it in words myself, or that I have any right to try.

Another sidenote: looking carefully at the figure at film's end, I'm not so sure now that he's a police officer. He wears a uniform, and a similarly garbed man directed Alex's car to the side of the road earlier, but he (or at least his compatriots) also hold brass instruments. Officers who are also members in a marching band, perhaps? But all that's needed, really, is someone looking stern against the flow of the crowds... 

Some ten years after making the film Rossellini famously declared "Cinema is dead." In his case he wasn't completely right--he would do more features, documentaries, television movies, mostly about significant historical figures (his last feature would be about Christ). You understand the sense of frustration, though--after a film like this, what more can be said or done in the genre of narrative filmmaking?

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