Now widely regarded as an epoch-making masterpiece, premonitory of the rise of Italian modernism, Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954) suffered a thorough drubbing in its box office, though was greatly admired by auteurs like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The film is, at its core, a bracing study on the fraught relationship of reverse elements- George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman played a British couple journeying to Naples to sell an inherited property; the husband is a stolid rationalist whilst the wife a sensitive romantic. Their glaring disharmony is more acted out through their overt disdain for one another; both are susceptible, the moment they touch down the foreign land, to the immaturity of making each other jealous to express their longing for mutual understanding. Amongst many of the couples’ venomous exchanges, the wife, on one occasion, recalls a past fancy for a now-deceased poet, to which the aggrieved husband responds derisively: “He was a fool… [Poet and fool,] what is the difference?” This, and the fact that the couple is named Joyce, invoke James Joyce’s “The Dead,” but such affinity is in fact very tenuous. While Joyce’s masterwork maintains a veneer of merriment that carefully disguises the festering wound, at least, until the denouement, Rossellini exposes in unflinching detail a misalliance that neither the husband nor the wife cares to conceal from the public eye.
One distinctive aspect of the film that makes it the precedent of succeeding works of Italian modernists is its sharp veer from the conventional narrative style, preoccupying most of all with imageries that seem to bear little relevance to the central theme of the story, but, once those scenes are given much pondering afterward, may be of profound, symbolic meanings that, on most occasions, reflect the characters’ states of mind. Such is equivalent to the use of symbols and metaphors in literature; the ingenious tricks that make movie-viewing not merely a preferred recreation of time-killing, but a rewarding digestion of serious works of art. A lot of time in Viaggio the camera lingers on several notable tourist spots that Katherine, the wife, visits in her solitary excursion. Here, Rossellini does not make the tropes as mystifying as, say, Antonioni would’ve done in his famous pieces. There are direct associations with love, death, solitude and danger of the places Katherine visits; reminders that intensify her feeling of loneliness, which in turn almost effaces her hitherto detestation for her dour husband. In a similar fashion Antonioni also made a film (La Notte) about how a dying love can be revived by the fear of loneliness- but, as the ending of the film leaves us thinking, can the restored love still retain its former passion? In other words, and to put it simply, is that real love?
Is that real love? The ending sequence of Viaggio sees the husband suggests brusquely of a divorce, and the wife, flustered and dismayed when she’s swept along by a throng of religious procession, realises that she cannot bear the thought of being separated from her husband for good, reunites with him and both decides to bury whatever rancour they used to harbour against each other. Whether such reunion is actuated out of their still unwavering love or a fear of loneliness exacerbated by the feeling of alienation in a foreign country, the film never offers a persuasive answer. Such seemingly unconvincing and ambiguous closure is distinct from that of its similar sorts- those that also centralise on travellers in a foreign country- in which rarely do the events tie up in a positive outcome. Hapless or not, what those intrepid adventurers do share- and it is perhaps the most inspiring quality of this particular subject- is a profound understanding of one’s inner self or the environment- physical, moral or psychological- that one inhabits. The formula seems invariably that one flounders and one gains wisdom; flounders again and yet another new wisdom is gained. Life is an unending cycle of “journeys” like that.