As auteurist demigods go, Roberto Rossellini is still tough to nail down—there’s the neorealist Rossellini, the wrestling-adulterously-with-Ingrid-Bergman Rossellini, the kicked-out-of-India Rossellini, and the low-budget TV-historian Rossellini. Each has had his moment in the sun, but today the light falls on the Bergman years, and particularly on this melancholic 1954 heartbreaker, now recognized as a career-defining masterpiece. Inescapably, it’s a film about the fragility of marriage (Ingrid and Roberto had only been married for four years at this point, and wouldn’t last another four), in which a British couple (Bergman and George Sanders) descend on Naples to sell an inherited house.
It’s clear from minute one that the couple’s faith in each other is in free fall, and their distractions and dalliances in Italy, shared and separate, are only postponing the inevitable. The lost characters spend most of the film turning their anxious attention outward, as tourists and vacationers, so the film becomes a breath-holding study—an “investigation,” per critic David Thomson—of unhappiness on the verge of explosion. Instead, Rossellini takes the “action” to Pompeii, where the pair witness the plaster-casting of two entwined bodies incinerated by lava 2,000 years earlier, and metaphor becomes reality.
Always interested in the mystery zone between documentary and fiction, even when the “reality” in question was his own marriage, Rossellini shoots his anti-drama with impassive mobility, always maintaining a distance but constantly reframing, insisting that “real” environments impede on the characters’ perspectives. It’s a movie you have to hold on to as it wanders—it will not grab on to you—and it was loathed upon its original release, except by the Cahiers du cinéma gang. (Italian critics wowed by Fellini’s La Strada, released the same day, called for Rossellini’s retirement.) Laying the brickwork for Antonioni’s existential parables a few years to come, Voyage to Italy is close to watching actual strangers suffer loneliness despite being together. It can leave an aching bruise, but only if you’re paying attention.