VOYAGE IN ITALY (Viaggio in Italia)

(director/writer: Roberto Rossellini; screenwriter: Vitaliano Brancati; cinematographer: Enzo Serafin; editor: Jolanda Benvenuti; music: Renzo Rossellini; cast: George Sanders (Alex Joyce), Ingrid Bergman (Katherine Joyce), Leslie Daniels (Tony Burton), Natalia Ray (Natalie Burton), Maria Mauban (Marie), Anna Proclemer (Naples prostitute); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Roberto Rossellini; Fine Arts Films Inc.; 1953-in English and dubbed)

“Roberto Rossellini’s finest film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A magical love story that is beautifully told without one false note. It makes the best of its dead time, more so than any other film of this high quality has ever done before. Its passionate conclusion is still moving even at this date some fifty years after its release. This is Roberto Rossellini’s finest film (his others with Ingrid Bergman as his wife include “Joan of Arc at the Stake”-1954 and “Fear”-1954). It lulls you with its ordinary scenario where not much seems to be happening, but after a while the stunning historical Mediterranean landscape becomes part of the story and a seemingly loveless couple headed for a divorce finds hope again as their new spiritual surroundings brings them a renewal of love.

A bored, cynical, wealthy, upper-class and sophisticated English couple, Katherine and Alex (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders), married without children for eight years, travel in their luxury car from London to Naples, where they plan to mix business with pleasure. Their Uncle Homer died (the filmmaker never lets us know which one he was a relative to) and left them his luxurious villa outside of Naples, which they plan to sell. At the villa, a strained Katherine tells her stuffy workaholic businessman hubby about a poet who died recently, who was her good friend (a possible suitor before she met him). The sickly young poet risked further illness by standing under her window in a rainstorm on the eve of her marriage to let her know he cared, which she found touching. Alex counters by saying he was a fool, which is what a poet is anyway. The sarcastic Alex has a way of hurting her with his cold remarks, which makes her withdraw from him in fear of further hurt. The couple’s tedium increases in hostility, and they both seem ill at ease in their surroundings.

Alex leaves Katherine alone to spend time with his idle Brit acquaintances on the Isle of Capri, while she hires a tour guide to trek through the National Archaeological Museum and visits natural sites such as the Sulphur Springs of Mt. Vesuvius, a trip to Cumae to see the region’s Greek fortress and the cave of the Sibyl, her most joyous visit to the ionization of the craters near Vesuvius, and takes a trip with the caretaker of her villa’s wife Natalia to the Fontanelle cemetery (that has the catacombs on its grounds where there are skeletons, mostly skulls, on display in rows, and as is the local custom they are looked after by the Neapolitans as a sort of an “adoption”). Alex returns after his failed attempt to lure the estranged married Capri denizen Marie to bed, and his change of mind in seeing a prostitute in Naples.

In the concluding scene, Alex asks for a divorce. At the same time, the caretaker of their place, Tony Burton, insists they accompany him to Pompeii to observe a unique and rarely seen event, as there are discovered disintegrating bodies from a couple of a thousand years ago (at the time of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD) and in the hollow ground the men cast a plaster mold in the empty space to give the body the shape it would have had when alive. Katherine gets sick at this death scene and Alex takes her away from the desolation of Pompeii’s ruins. In bustling Naples, they get stuck in traffic as a religious parade is taking place. Pushed along with the hysterical child-like frenzy of the joyous crowd, Katherine calls for Alex’s help. He comes to her rescue and in the positive energy of their surroundings he says “I love you” as the crowd is shouting “Miracle! Miracle!” The film concludes with their love mysteriously renewed in the warm climate of Naples, which might not be believable unless you saw for yourself how convincing this seemingly unconvincing resolution really is.

The film was scorned upon release, but later called a masterpiece by French critics in Cahiers du Cinema.