Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
This week, Image released a Top 25 Films About Marriage list as voted on by the Arts and Faith community. You can read an excellent introduction to the list written by my Filmwell colleague, Michael Leary. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to contribute a blurb to the list for the #19 selection, Tuesday, After Christmas–a film that captures the consequences of adultery in a way that I’ve not seen before. It’s quite an eclectic list that is reflective of a diverse community of people, including film critics and enthusiasts. Confession: there are more films on the list that I haven’t seen, but more than anything, this has me excited about the films that await. As it relates to Christ and Pop Culture, it’s notable that the #2 film on the list is Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, which made our top five list for 2011 films, and is presently streaming on Netflix. But, in conjunction with this list, and given that today is Valentine’s Day, I’ve decided to share some thoughts on the top selection for this year’s Arts and Faith Top 25 list–Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (or, Journey to Italy), which is currently streaming on Hulu Plus.
Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy begins with Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex Joyce (George Sanders) traveling by car from their home in London on their way to Naples so they can finalize selling a villa they have inherited. Vacations–and their potentially long car rides, in particular–can sometimes indicate the state of any relationship, but particularly a marriage. That is, the health of a marriage can, for a time, go undetected, because unspoken and unacknowledged, in the midst of the daily routines and workaday world busyness that can dominate the landscape of home life. The forced proximity and extended time of the road can produce a time of memorable bonding and renewed intimacy. Or, a marriage with dried up roots can begin to show rotten fruit above the surface. At a certain point during their car ride, Katherine says that it’s the “first time we’ve spent so much time alone since we’ve been married,” and, shortly after arriving at their destination, she proclaims, “I’ve realized that we’re like two strangers.”
That this is an eight year marriage between “strangers” is a discovery that has a disruptive ripple effect on the rest of their time in Italy. They consistently get into arguments, usually stemming from Alex’s ill-humored, inexpressive temperament, and Katherine’s perhaps sometimes-unmanageable longing to feel that her husband desires her. At the hotel bar, Alex shows that he has eyes for other women; meanwhile, Katherine recounts the story of a previous lover who was willing to risk himself to be with her. These maneuvers cast on one another a burdensome sense in which they have found or are finding familiarity with someone outside of their marriage. Each hurtful remark and rejection of half-hearted reconciliation becomes a reinforcement of their remoteness.
Eventually, their increasing alienation becomes a literal separation as they begin to go separate ways during the vacation. After referring to the Solfatara that Katherine visited as a “strange place,” a local tells Katherine of the “Fontanelle,” a cemetary where there are catacombs that “contain bones from several different ancient centuries.” People visit the long-dead remains out of spiritual pity, because they have been “abandoned, forgotten.” Katherine says that it’s a “strange custom” that she “can’t understand,” and yet “abandoned” and “forgotten”–estranged–describes exactly the state of her marriage, a relationship that has become ritualized deadness. And, yet, as such, it too is in a place where it could use some form of spiritual awakening. After an earlier failed attempt at a hookup with a casual acquaintance, Alex opts to pick up a prostitute. But instead of pleasure, what Alex encounters is a suicidal woman dealing with the recent death of a young friend. So not only is their marriage dying, but Katherine’s and Alex’s attempts to elude one another lead to peculiar “dead” ends.
Critics with a better historical sense than myself have commented that this film is a first of its kind as modern cinema; complementary to this suggestion is that, famously, George Sanders was often frustrated with Rossellini’s directorial approach. Wheeler Winston Dixon notes that a good bit of the film was “improvised” and that much of the “realistic” meandering that goes on in the film is coincident with a kind of searching that Rossellini himself was doing. Dixon calls it “a film in search of itself.” Indeed, you might say that Katherine and Alex are in a marriage in frustrated search of itself. Divorce seems inevitable, for their marital journey is on a path that they’ve never grown accustomed to. Now they’re resigned to look down other roads.
That is, until the film’s final, unforgettable moments, when a different kind of strangeness enters the scene–a religiously tinged awakening that’s a more unexplainable revelation than the strangeness which has left the Joyces in ruins. Glimpses of new life have to this point been capturing Katherine’s attention, and here it seems as if she becomes caught up in its procession, so to speak–but not without Alex. It’s here that you get the sense that the Joyce’s marital voyage has become a mysterious procession characterized by warmth not coldness, closeness not distance, and trusting familiarity not strangeness. Maybe now they are ready to return home.