Geoffrey Nowell-Smith once characterized Luchino Visconti’s career as sweeping “in a wide arc round the area generally known as neorealism,” at times approaching but never quite touching that idealized form. Much the same could be said of many other so-called Italian neorealists—and, for that matter, of Jean Renoir too, although Renoir was no Italian; the film that set the tone for neorealism, Renoir’s Toni, was made in France in 1934. Italian directors, in what was a minor national industry for a while, became adept at insisting that the “real,” hard-core neorealists were those other than themselves (much as when we complain about tourists overrunning and despoiling the scenery, “tourists” are always somebody else, and we remain intrepid voyagers instead).
Roberto Rossellini, for his part, was more explicit. He insisted that “neorealist reality is incomplete, official, and entirely reasonable; but the poetry, the mystery, everything that completes and enlarges tangible reality, is completely missing.” This is a lack he consciously, self-consciously, attempted to make good in the celebrated series of films he made with Ingrid Bergman, a series that culminated in the extraordinary Journey to Italy (1954), which has come down to us as a test case in how to really watch a film, where “the poetry, the mystery, everything that completes and enlarges tangible reality” is emphasized, foregrounded as never before.
Rossellini’s leitmotif all along had been the flash of dramatic interruption. His way of breaking out of the contemplative stance, the director’s posture as unmoved mover, that neorealism implies had been to shatter “reality” into fragments, shards that would pierce the spectator’s awareness and make complacency impossible—impossible for spectator, actor, and director alike. He pulled no punches. The momentary, the break in construction, the abrupt interruption of process and expectation—these stay with us. The shooting (double entendre intended) of Pina (Anna Magnani) from the back of the truck in Rome Open City (1945), the drowning of the partisans in the Po sequence of Paisan (1946)—to see these charged episodes is to remember them. They don’t let go. They become inscribed in our memory—inscribed because Rossellini had an almost uncanny way of lodging them there.
And this is where Ingrid Bergman comes in, for Rossellini’s films with her are organized around such episodes and sequences. Flashes of dramatic interruption are now refracted with remarkable consistency and power through the reactions on-screen of a single actress. Rossellini alone among directors of Bergman educed and drew upon her preternatural capacity to show what it felt like to be shaken up and pried loose from her expectations, to be so visibly affected by something she never imagined she could experience. A hint of what is to come is at hand in the first collaboration, Stromboli (1950). What Rossellini saw in and about Bergman as an actor, when applied not to the overwrought volcanic climax of the film but to the earlier, emblematic tuna-fishing sequence, sets its seal upon Stromboli in a way that could scarcely be more memorable. Rossellini deliberately avoided conventional cutaway reaction shots to those gelatinous, monstrous tuna, thrashing about in their death throes inside the huge trap the fishermen have spent eight laborious days in the sun setting for them. We know how seeing this registers with Bergman, and with Rossellini too, because we know—how, given the sheer power of the sequence, could we not know?—how seeing it registers with us. Rossellini, like Renoir before him, at moments like this oversteps limits that for most directors are built-in and taken for granted.
Rossellini is, of course, showing us what the fishermen of Stromboli do as well as Bergman’s reaction to it. Which is to say that Rossellini, who eschewed Marxism, was nevertheless concerned, in his own way, to proceed from the point of production. Stromboli ignores l’espèce ouvrière, the workers’ milieu, as such, yet gets there despite itself—can there be any doubt that Rossellini’s grumpy, oppressed, and resentful fishermen have a great deal to be resentful about? As in Journey to Italy, and as in Europe ’51 too, Rossellini is concerned to avoid the obvious, the one-off, cheap-shot explanation.
The Lower Depths
With Europe ’51 (1952), Rossellini was accused from the sidelines of the left of abandoning l’espèce ouvrière. Bergman is no northern displaced person rescued from internment by a Southern Italian fisherman but one half of an American couple living in Rome, comfortably integrated—or so it seems—within its bourgeois circles, circles whose inclusiveness turns out to be more brittle and treacherous than she at first suspects. Irene, after the early horror of her son’s death, is cut off, cast out, and brutally, if “clinically,” marginalized. Rossellini blames none of the usual scapegoats, rounds up none of the usual suspects: the church, the (Communist) party, the psychiatric establishment, the police, the downtrodden themselves. These all let Irene down, betray her, but the emphasis throughout is on Irene, who is both redeemed and ruined by what she uncovers. Officials are kindly, punctilious, considerate—and utterly damning. From her eyes, said Eric Rohmer of the scene where Irene looks through her barred window, flow “the most beautiful tears ever shed on a screen.” Europe ’51 is never judgmental or finger-pointing, but it is one long indictment all the same. Whatever its attitude toward l’espèce ouvrière may be, the film hurts much as the young Jean-Pierre Léaud’s look into the camera at the end of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows hurts. Small wonder that the French critics at Cahiers du cinéma, who went on to constitute the nouvelle vague, loved Rossellini as much as they did. Adriano Aprà’s words may exaggerate but are not ungrounded: “Most Italian cinema is a cinema of the dead, and ‘realistic’ in the sense that it shows us who we are. It puts us at peace with ourselves, it conciliates; it does not show us what we are not and how we could become that. It’s a cinema of peace, of pacification, while that of Rossellini is a cinema of war, of guerrilla action, of revolution.”
I Love a Parade
In Journey to Italy, the battle lines are domestic. Rossellini’s producers insisted on George Sanders as a “name” counterweight to Bergman. Sanders throughout disparaged Rossellini’s improvisatory methods on the set; his grumpiness finds expression in Alex Joyce, the character he plays in the film. Rossellini harnesses the real alienation of his players to the story of a couple—he disillusioned, sour, and cynical (as Sanders was in real life), she in a state of not-always-quiet desperation about their marriage.
The Joyces’ is a journey in Italy as well as to it, the original journey to Italy having been made by the late Uncle Homer, who settled there, stayed during a war that is otherwise scarcely mentioned, and is still fondly missed by his Neapolitan friends, friends who are unlikely to miss the Joyces, his heirs, in anything like the same way. For that matter, the Joyces themselves, as we encounter them, wouldn’t miss each other much if their marriage were to do what it threatens to do and fall apart. Journey to Italy, in Leo Braudy’s words, “contains some of the most abrasive scenes between a man and a woman that have ever been filmed . . . It is an abrasion of boredoms spawned by the inconsequential space-filling dialogue that will be echoed in Antonioni’s L’avventura.” But for all this—we can freely grant that Antonioni’s various couples would have been impossible without Rossellini’s—Journey to Italy’s ending is quite unlike L’avventura’s. Rossellini’s camera cranes away from Katherine and Alex and fixes not on the couple themselves but beyond them—there is, with Rossellini, always a beyond, a Jenseits—on the religious procession in which their carapace of a car is engulfed.
Journey to Italy, similarly, opens “as if it had begun a lot earlier,” as José Guarner has pointed out. “We are not present at the opening of a story, merely coming in on something that was already going on”—what Rossellini described as “a couple’s relationship under the influence of a third person: the exterior world.” This exterior world, or what we see of it—that is, the extraordinary world of Naples and Pompeii—is not just a setting but a character in the film, much as Wessex is in Thomas Hardy’s novels, and much as the isle of Stromboli and the city of Rome feature—geographically, topologically—in Stromboli and Europe ’51. The word that suggests itself here is psychotopography, a term used by Laurie Johnson to characterize Werner Herzog’s films, where aspects of a protagonist’s, or the director’s, innermost concerns are made visible in external nature or landscape. In addition, Rossellini uses social settings, or milieus, in much the same way. The provocation in which he specializes throws self-provocation (as well as the provocation of Bergman) into the mix.
These incitements are apparent in all three of the Bergman films, but it is in Journey to Italy that geography, that psychotopography, really comes to a head as never before. This time it encompasses not just an island or a city but an eon: we watch Bergman as she is cast back—elementally—into the depths of time. At the end of the film, just when the exterior world seems bent upon sealing Katherine and Alex’s separation, it wheels around and effects a reconciliation. In a dialectical twist, they finally become present to each other under its impress; consciousness and self-consciousness finally imply each other; timelessness and timeliness at last interpenetrate. All along, their studied imperviousness to what surrounds them—Alex, in particular, complains about Italy as though it were intruding upon him, rather than he traversing it with Katherine—has complemented their imperviousness to each other. This combined uneasily with a fixation—Katherine’s nerve-racking waiting up for Alex in the villa is an instance—they don’t know how to interpret or explore.
But Katherine ultimately does wish to explore Naples and its environs. Each of the visits she makes to various sites—to the National Archaeological Museum, to Cumae, to the cave of the Sibyl, to the igneous lava fields near Vesuvius, and to the Fontanelle catacombs—emphasizes what Jacques Rivette called “all those shots of eyes looking.” At the museum, the camera focuses on the statues before moving to an angle from which we can see Katherine looking at them. Rossellini’s camera declines any interpretive advantage, registering instead the outward particularity of what it observes, and does so with the same kind of “astonishing reticence” (the phrase is Gilberto Perez’s) that Katherine (sometimes despite herself) brings to bear. Life is taken as if by surprise. The camera tracks, pans, and cranes, always beginning with what is being looked at and always ending—without a cut—on Katherine’s facial expression. Rossellini, eschewing the traditional shot–reaction shot formula, creates meaning in, by, and through the way Katherine reacts to what she sees. In so doing, he is giving the spectator work to do. We look, just as Rossellini’s camera looks, at Katherine and with Katherine, at one and the same time. “Naples as filtered through the consciousness of the heroine” is, in André Bazin’s words, “a mental landscape at once as objective as a . . . photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness.” Once again, Rossellini is transgressing boundaries others had long taken for granted—which is why Jacques Rivette insisted in the 1950s, and why Laura Mulvey was later to reiterate, that “if there is a modern cinema, this is it . . . With the appearance of Viaggio in Italia, all films have suddenly aged ten years.”