Here again was one of the few occasions where I was responsible and just sat down, soon as the movie was over, and wrote a three-page meditation on Voyage to Italy and (even more rare) I remember being really pleased with it, feeling like this story of an unhappily married middle-aged couple falling apart on vacation had helped me tap into something about my parents’ divorce. Helped me kinda meditate on ups and downs of relationships which is also pretty pertinent now, months later, as I find myself on the outs with somebody I’ve been dating and who I like quite a bit).
But I can’t find that essay among the dozen-odd notebooks by my bed, which means it’s either in my car or at the office. So, fuck it, I’ll write another one. Less personal this time and more critical. Because while I remember pretty clearly how and why it rang my bell in an uncomfortable way, as concerns my own romantic entanglements over the past year and everything my parents went through, I’m getting more comfortable with saying that story and character are the two things I care about most in movies, and Voyage to Italy seems to be lacking in both.
I’ve been reading plot summaries and think pieces and retrospectives and reviews of it between last night and this morning, trying to get familiar again, and I’m a little surprised—although it makes sense with a few moments’ thought—that this movie was a huge influence on the then-blossoming New Wave. Filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard (with whom I’ve got probably the most hot-and-cold relationship of any director on the List) found Rossellini’s quiet, meditative, somewhat ponderous movie to be a big inspiration when it comes to the exploration of neo-realism—which is a movement I don’t totally understand just yet. I plan to do some research and write a quick piece about what all the different movements entail (expressionism, modernism, post modernism, sur- and neo- and plain old -realism).
I saw a remark from A.O. Scott, critic for The New York Times, and then another from BFI, both of them rapturous, praising the “atmosphere” of Voyage, and the way that its atmosphere elucidates the feeling of ennui, of marital boredom, of existential smallness and how our lives are these quick flashes in the broader sweep of time.
In that respect, I totally see the brilliance of the movie. Setting it ina place with such a history of conflict, of horror, of sanctity and piety and opulence, art, grandeur. It gives the movie an Ozymandian vibe of, like, “All these great achievements by all these great people—and they’re all dead.”
The idea is driven home when, at the end, our stars, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, go to Pompeii and see the petrified remains of two lovers whose shells are pressured in the position they held when the volcano’s eruption found them.
This appreciation of their own smallness appears to make them care more for one another so that they repair their marriage just before a crane shot carries us off toward the credits.
SO you’ve got atmosphere and ideas and heart, intelligence, style—but there isn’t much of a story.
When I think about movies that care more about atmosphere than story or character I think of F.W. Murnau (particularly Nosferatu) and Carl Theodore Dreyer (particularly, by chance, his own take on the vampire, Vampyr): both of them have stayed with me, because their visual brilliance and style, but I didn’t enjoy either one. Also, I’d contend that both of those filmmakers, as they got older, moved away from that obsession with atmosphere and started just telling stories. Dreyer’s Gertrud, when we get to it, will make for an interesting counterpoint to this kinda filmmaking. Same with Ordet.
Voyage to Italy is definitely a type of masterpiece, but it’s not for me. Definitely an interesting addition, though, to the cinema of marriage (and its discontents). Up there with Stella Dallas and Dodsworth and The Baker’s Wife and The Crowd.
Maybe there’s a piece to be written about that.