Monday, May 12, 2014

Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)

Cinema is dead

(Warning: story and plot twists of StromboliEuropa '51Journey to Italy and The Flowers of St. Francis discussed in detail)

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, where Alex and Katherine (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) Joyce (aha) drive through the Italian countryside, and the realization gradually dawns that you're following a couple deeply unhappy with each other. 

First we see of Alex he's fallen 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?"). When Alex starts talking business Katherine rolls her eyes; later she tells him: "I didn't realize spending time alone with me would bore you so much." She seals their doom with the observation that "This is the first time we've been really alone ever since we were married." Alex hopes to stay in Italy long enough to sell a villa willed to him by his Uncle Homer; he doesn't realize the visit will involve far more intricate negotiations, with 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 alone to visit the museums of Naples. At a party Katherine glares as Alex flirts with a woman; at another Alex glares back when Katherine is surrounded by 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 look for a buyer--maybe meet with  friends.

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

Katherine's journey is less verbose, with only tour guides and statues for company. 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. The statuary are tall and impressively, even intimidatingly, muscled, and are shot in a way that's more than a little threatening (the camera rushes at a discus thrower with vivid pale eyes, as if he were lunging at Katherine; cut to a different angle and as she turns away, he appears to reach out at her hair). 

More important for me--and, I think, for Rossellini--is Katherine's reaction: perturbed but standing her ground as she stares down the statues. Rossellini's threat (if it was a threat) is exposed as a bluff; what does unsettles Katherine--but more on that later.

A sidenote: Katherine's guide mentions satyrs. "Fortunately they all died out," he states deadpan; "they were very dangerous." The guide go on to correctly identify various Roman emperors and the Farnese Hercules with its massive knotted tree trunk of a back. Was the guide (or Rossellini) pulling Katherine's leg with that satyr story? 

Considering how stylized the cinema of alienation becomes in the hands of Antonioni and Kubrick it's fascinating to see Rossellini develop his earlier version. Both Kubrick and Rossellini use architecture and landscape to shape their characters' isolation--Kubrick with a gigantic estate filled with dozens of naked masked women; Rossellini with Rome. I'd say of the two filmmakers 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--you wander along passages, grow familiar with the narrow corridors before the walls fall away and the skulls multiply beyond counting. Again, Katherine is key: she's overwhelmed, and her response is in marked contrast to all the other (presumably local) visitors inured to this pageantry of death.

Rossellini brings husband and wife back together one more time for an even more powerful reminder of mortality: an archeologist in Pompeii pours plaster of Paris into an empty space found in the dead city's groundsspaces recognized for what they are: a negative recording of man's presence. When the plaster dries the dirt is brushed away the dead revealed--a couple, maybe married, maybe even to each other, caught together in their final moments (decades later Paul W.S. Anderson would take this image and weave an entire film around it). Katherine is devastated, demands to be taken home; Alex is similarly moved. They've just been reminded of the ravenous nature of death--that sometimes you don't even leave a body behind. 

Following this: a prolonged and totally unnecessary sequence where husband and wife walk from the dig to parked car, unnecessary only if you still haven't tuned in to Rossellini's carefully calibrated sensibility. As Katherine and Alex 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 snarl 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)--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 spoke 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's natures persist, 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 a narrative's iron will--through digressions (the walk back to the car) or nonverbal sequences (Alex sneaking home past Katherine late at night, a comic gem of a passage full of nervously waving feelers and tense pauses). 

"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 kind of folk who might accept or even demand such an ending--become hysterical. Film ends with cop searching the crowd, looking sternly about for trouble (okay, those 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 over 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 cruelest of all, mainly because it encourages us to not give up; we go forth with eyes wide open and arms spread wide, to accept the waiting 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 settle 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 and apparently forgiven all (yeah right), informs him with proprietary authority: "you know there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible." "What's that?" "Fuck."

Presumably the wife will become pregnant after the session; presumably the coming child will bind man and wife tighter together. That last spoken verb is no promise of matrimonial ecstasies to come; that's the sound of a 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 Joyce's story, which echoes Joyce's own life) is also troubled. The last possibly being his true objective all along: to chart, mediate, depict a believable way for the two 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 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--his fear that it's all for nothing.

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.

Rossellini has 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) as emotions convulse on her 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. 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  you can't put a finger on exactly where, or when; late in the film she's asked point-blank, and her answer is near incoherent--she talks of self-hatred, she gropes for words the way we grope for motives.

It's not that Rossellini doesn't know what to present, or lacks the skill; rather, I suspect he has too much respect to offer some neatly tailored explanation. His films often contain fractures in their narrative, cracks which he fails to fill in with logic or narrative; 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 years later), I'm not sure I'm any better equipped 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 in a marching band, perhaps? But all that's needed, really, is an authority figure 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 was mistaken--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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