The neorealist corpuses of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini – comrades in arms, yes, but figures whose similitude belies discrepancies in their works – have been cordoned off into the same space for so long you half forget they were actually different filmmakers at all. Yet De Sica’s world of omnipresent off-screen space maundering around the edges of open frames only shares partial similarities with Rossellini’s works. What both filmmakers did unite under was a continual, restive thrust not to rest on singular definitions of neorealism, an insatiable desire to experiment with, and critique, the style that made them household names among connoisseurs of world cinema.
As time went on, De Sica prismatically wandered an outward path that sublimated both Capraesque sentimentalism and Chaplinesque whimsy, both ingredients that defray the cost of ascetic commitment to neorealism. Like many of the neorealists, his best films used neorealism as a counterpoint or a jumping off point rather than a sacrosanct holy text. By pitting neorealism against seemingly disjointed styles from other schools of thought, he emerged with a neorealism that was continually protean, alive, and indefinable.
Rossellini’s apotheosis is of the same school of experimenting with neorealism by matching it to antithetical styles, although he did not cross the pond to discover Capra or Chaplin. Unlike De Sica, Rossellini experimented with increasingly formal, stolid styles as contrasts or juxtapositions for his errantly moving neorealist camera. His most piercing films, like Voyage to Italy, deliberately dislocate the neorealist impulse by injecting closed, Hollywoody frames into open spaces and undercutting rampant freedom with the weight of human ennui. These films nobly buckle themselves at the seams, fitting styles together with an awareness of disharmony rather than camaraderie. They rely on disparate impulses and framing techniques to impress the reality that people are governed by different imaginative spaces and that the world and all its inhabitants do not easily conform to a governing vision of life.
With Voyage to Italy, every scene is a parade of furtive disarray, with characters who dramatically disagree with one another sublimated into wildly different visual architectures. From the very beginning, we know something is up when we open on a staid shot of a car occupied by two Westerners in the form of the self-evidently supercilious George Sanders (arguably the most supercilious actor to walk the Earth) and the alternately intoxicating, mournful, and haughty Ingrid Bergman as Alex and Katherine, two past-lovers whose marriage is now an estranged, hollow facade and a corporeal embodiment of social propriety ringing them dry. English speakers, in a Rossellini film! Yes, and their presence is the polar opposite of a bid for mainstream success on the director’s part.
Rather, Rossellini conspicuously constructs a world of bedlam and tumult around these two steadfast markers of European modernity. He adopts a malleable tone as the camera vacillates between domestic two-shots and stately stagnancy of the two married Anglophiles, on one hand, and the more capricious, even spasmodic visuals that thrash the two when they enter the spaces of an Italian public. More simply, Rossellini boldly constructs from the very first scene a resting point when the two characters are alone and the camera follows them, a marker of their domineering control over the frame and their world. When they step out into the world, however, as in a boldly entropic hotel dinner sequence early in the film, the camera ceases its servile, sycophantic position and instead brusquely moves around the two characters rather than with them, as if unsure of where to look as others pass in front of, behind, and around Sanders and Bergman and they must sacrifice their reigning arriviste import. The camera enjoins itself to otherize them as they fastidiously refuse to inhabit the space around them, preferring instead to exist within Italy but not “of” it. That this Italian world might meaningfully mean anything to them – that it is anything other than an alien location they pass through on their bid to acquire more wealth – is foreign to them.
When they do arrive at their dearly departed uncle’s abode (the purpose of their trip is to sell the home they recently inherited), the camera tellingly leads them around the abundant memories of a space they can never truly call home. The two individuals do not galvanize the camera; instead, the lens interrupts and directs them in a world that now sits atop them, with their position in this world as never more than tentative or provisional. They’re like pasty, pallid ghosts floating through a sun-scorched vista. The camera doesn’t saunter around to wait for them to restabilize or plant their feet in the ground; it ushers them forward, affording them no time to shake hands with this landscape. Envisioned is a world different from them laying siege to their semblance of self. Rather than crutching himself on the Hollywood names, Rossellini relies on the fading tatters of the star studio system to experiment with the unsafe, disjunctive regions between Hollywood and neorealist styles. He sutures the two styles – one to represent the couple alone and the other to reflect this new world around them – together in a commentary on how life is formed in the interstitial regions between imaginative spaces. Visual styles clash with one another as imaginative visions of the world do.
From there, Rossellini amiably enjoins the ailing couple to trek across the biomes of Italian life, with each episode a new discursive region opening their beings. Katherine unpacks when a museum trip seems curated into her very soul, with statues leering primordially until her world becomes encapsulated in them. Most famously, an excursion to the remains of Pompeii excavates more than entwined carcasses; the sight of two lovers permanently cohabiting under magma begs her to analyze the question mark that is her feckless relationship with Alex. What develops as a stunted awakening for Katherine only buttresses Alex’s bourgeois chainmail of equal parts churlish discontent and witheringly distant put-downs. The two star-sick once-lovers are entombed in a well-to-do stasis of their own making, the focal point of a film that never lapses into easy saturnine gloom because it takes such great pains to notice the vivacious kinesis of the Italian children and adults trying their best to thrive even amidst the desecration of post-war Italy.
There’s prime cinematic ennui at the heart of Voyage; one can sense a young Antonioni pulsing and throbbing as he takes notes by the mile, or a Godard being born before the film’s very eyes. The architectural vacancy and desolate-landscape frames of L’Avventura likely wouldn’t exist without the experiential vision of life in Voyage to Italy, a film that sees the first steps of the Italian neorealist movement trudging along to forge the then inchoate path to the French New Wave. Thematically, the fixation on film form as a forum for undercutting bougie modernism is the primary vessel of this voyage, but the stylistic cues are as pronounced as the spiritual ones. The acrid death throes of human relationship feel all the more scorching, bitter, and alienating enshrined in Rossellini’s intentionally uneasy melding of melting styles, a mettlesome and meddlesome technique that deliberately breaks the film at the stylistic hinges. Such uncanny heartbreak can only exist in the realm of Rossellini precisely because his style is found only in the fallout between styles – different visions of the world intersect in brash, brazen shifts of the camera.
In the film’s finale, the divergent styles are finally enjoined into harmony and bonded in a display of tenuous, tempered romanticism and personal reawakening as Sanders and Bergman are channelled out of their emotional casing and into convivial human effervescence. As primal, pulsing, human emotion overtakes them and they express themselves openly for the first time in the film – maybe in their lives – they are finally depicted within the confines of the unstable neorealist camera – the very one that had until that point opposed and excluded them. In the film’s final gesture, the camera shakes with them only to stop again as they join together, with the connection of the shaking and unshaking camera (sharing a shot for the first time in the film) reflecting not only the conjoining of emotions but a deeper connection of imaginative perspectives. Alex and Katherine are now both ajar and closed, both momentarily active and sedate, and their experience is now one of imaginative spaces that are not antithetical or mutually exclusive, but overlapping and cohabiting. Without a film of such diligent stylistic separation before this ending, the spiritual upheaval of the conclusion could never have become one of the most uplifting, and stylistically profound, moments in all of cinema, a paean to the flexibility of emotional states to interact with one another, in unison, rather than to exist in mutual opprobrium.