Voyage to Italy
By way of a brief digression that will help focus our attention on Voyage to Italy, in a discussion of Hiroshima mon Amour Jacques Rivette believed, in Cahiers du Cinema, that Bergman's character in Stromboli was 'a 'moral' character. 'Instead of which the Emmanuelle Riva character in Hiroshima remains voluntarily blurred and ambiguous. Moreover, that is the theme of Hiroshima, in relation to this Japanese man, and in relation to the memories of Nevers that come back to her.'
Here we shall concentrate not on Bergman's character in Stromboli, however, but her moral, and yet ambiguously moral character in Voyage to Italy, a woman visiting the south of Italy with her husband. Again, as in Hiroshima mon Amour, the morality isn't so much in the present action, but the past recalled. What exactly was her relationship with that young man, the now dead Charles Lewington, years before? Early in the film she talks quite specifically about this liaison in the past, claiming it was merely a friendship no matter the wistfulness of her tone after her husband says, 'I never knew you were such good friends' and Bergman's Katherine replies, "oh I knew him before I met you." But she also goes on to say, "then on the eve of our wedding, the night before I left for London, I was packing my bags when I heard the sound of pebbles on my window, and the rain was so heavy that I couldn't see anyone outside, so I ran outside into the garden and there he stood...He was so strange and romantic. Maybe he wanted to prove to me that in spite of the high fever he had braved the rain to see me." Near the end of the film, however, there's maybe a hint that an affair did take place between them, or at least a possible affair never requited but certainly felt. As Katherine says, "I've seen so many strange things today, that I didn't have the time to tell you about. There are many things I didn't tell you." The latter line may merely refer to the day, but there's something in the tone and the construction of the sentence that hints at further revelation. Do we have a situation not unlike that in Hiroshima mon Amour, where Bergman's character here has vacillating feelings towards a dead ex-lover?
However, where in Hiroshima mon Amour we sense the past feelings were contained until inevitably released with the first man she apparently falls in love with since the war - ready to be expressed and explored with her new Japanese lover - in Voyage to Italy we have a moral woman coming to terms with a curiously ethereal issue. Here the problem lies in understanding feelings that would apparently be buried in the past (the friend/lover is dead) and she's now been married for eight years to George Sanders' character, Alex. But though she is a moral woman- and much more a moral woman than her husband is a moral man, a man who chats up a woman when he visits Capri, and doesn't seem averse to a spot of prostitution - we might sense that this moralism, even priggishness, comes out of feelings of denial. Do we not often find the most moral people are those who have constrained their passions, and then turned those buried passions into denial manifested as moral judgement? Hence, if someone has never sacrificed a feeling to a morality, yet has always lived well within the constraints of accepted morality naturally, then there may be no nervous reaction to another's moral backsliding. But if someone else were to act on the very impulses they've denied, then out of that denial of the action in the past, and the way it's been buried in one's consciousness in the present, then a virulent, even aggressive morality might present itself. It is this type of priggish morality we could suspect is evident in Bergman's character here, but it is a finally a rather more complex feeling than that, because, above all else, Bergman seems to be applying this aggressive morality to herself, not to another, and applying it more to her marital status than to something as 'immoral' as an affair.
To explain further, on more than one occasion Katherine recites a couple of lines from Charles' poetry, "Temple of the spirit. No longer bodies/ But pure ascetic images", as if aware not so much that she lost out by not having an affair with Charles, but lost out on something by marrying Alex. Now we can begin to see that Katherine isn't moralising in any conventional sense - in upholding standard morality - but in a decidedly unconventional sense, with an increasing identification with spirit to the detriment of matter. It isn't enough to say if only Charles were still alive: if Katherine has such strong feelings for him it lies in the degree of ethereality she perceives in him, and death is central to this. After all, is it not so often to the ethereal that Katherine is drawn? She may say at one stage she doesn't understand the Italians' obsession with the dead, at the Napoli catacombs, but even this seems to manifest itself out of a certain denial. As she remarks, after her friend insists "there are many people who have chosen a skeleton...who take care of it lovingly, bring fresh flowers every so often...", "but what is the meaning of all that?" "These poor dead", Natalia implores, "are abandoned and alone." "Well I don't understand, I just can't understand", Katherine insists, rather too insistently. Indeed, do we not recall a scene earlier in the film where she says to her husband, "to think that these men lived thousands of years ago and you feel they're just like the men of today. It's amazing. It is as if Nero or Caracalla, Caesar or Tiberius, would suddenly tell you what they felt and you could understand exactly what they were like." As the discussion with Natalia trails off, the film cuts to the boat coming in from Capri, cuts back to Katherine thinking intently, and then to her husband on that boat. Is she thinking of her husband, or thinking perhaps of the dead young man, a man who maybe she abandoned before he died, and whom she completely abandoned in death for a life with her husband?
The next day Katherine and Natalia drive through Napoli, and Katherine comments on how many expectant mothers there are. Later Natalia asks whether her husband likes children and Katherine says "I don't know, I think so. But one never knows what he's thinking." This could be auto critique - has Katherine really over the years expressed her thoughts to her husband? - or it could be a simple expression of her husband's emotional inarticulacy. What we sense, though, is that any inexpressiveness on Katherine's part is blocked subjectivity; where on Alex's part it's as though subjectivity is itself a waste of time. Earlier in the film he talks about "Italy poisoning you with laziness", and that he can't wait to get back to work.
We may now begin to see there are several problems within this marriage, most of them expressed through the two different rhythms of its two central characters. Katherine seems to require the time for self-expression - the sort of time Alex believes poisons one with laziness - while Alex needs constantly to speed time up, to feel there is something else that has to be done with his precious . As he says early in the film, he thinks they should be able to sell the house they are in Italy to sell in next to no time; and at another moment he says they can't stay in Italy for very long because the British government - for whom Alex works in some capacity - doesn't give them enough money to stay in Italy for any more than a short period. There is with Alex the equation of time and money, but with Katherine there is often this sense of looking instead for an intensity of the moment that has nothing to do with Alex's concerns. When they argue early in the film, Katherine says she hardly knows him, and wonders why it took her so long to realize this. We could say it is because she's never been confronted so nakedly with the possibility of 'real' time, real in the sense of time not as a move towards accumulated ego, but much more an ontological completeness. That is, seeing time as an intermingling of tenses, so that past events, be they the sculptural re-enactments present in the museum, or the memories that come back to her of Charles Lewington, intermingle and in some ways destroy the present into the future that Alex seems to so require for his being.
So if we see Voyage to Italy as a film about marital discord, we can see it more specifically still as a film about marital discord within the problematic of opposing temporal modes. Laura Mulvey is absolutely right in an essay 'Vesuvian Topographies' to make so much of the notion of time in the film. As she says, "the ordered clock time of the North bumps uneasily into the more leisured time of the South." If Alex and Katherine decide to divorce, it will be partly because of temporal differences that required a location to bring out these discrepancies in selves. Before, it seems, Alex was active and Katherine busy, words which may ostensibly appear the same but are actually subtly different. In Alex's activities we might see a sense of purpose, but in Katherine's busyness merely duty and obligation. As she says, Alex was quite happy when she was his secretary, and kept busy whilst he was active, but now she realizes there is a greater sense of purpose in casually filling her days with less functional pursuits. It's perhaps in these activities that she can become active, albeit internally active, instead of merely externally busy. For in external activeness lies purpose, which presumably Alex has back in London, while external busyness merely implies that one is not doing nothing: it is Heidegger's uninhabited bustle. But in Italy Katherine seems to have found a purpose in the nothing, a sense of spiritual possibility in a country that can "poison you with laziness", but just as readily releases one from the practical and the temporally specific.
There's a key scene in the film when Alex and Katherine attend an aristocrat's party and various characters discuss the notion of 'dolce far niente', the idea of "how sweet it is to do nothing". Katherine laughs lightly at this, and another character says, "they say that Neapolitans are loafers. Now I'd like to ask you, would you say a shipwrecked man's a loafer. In a certain sense we're all shipwrecked. You have to fight so hard just to keep afloat." Sure, this is special pleading on the part of the aristocrat, but it's also a state to which Katherine increasingly seems to be drawn. As she moves towards active interior time and away from ideas of obligation and busyness, 'dolce far niente' has the power of a motto.
Part of Katherine's anger and irritation with her husband, then, lies in his impatience, in his desire to do things, and that in this very obsessive doing he has somehow obliterated great swathes of his wife's being. If, as Laura Mulvey suggests, paraphrasing Gilles Deleuze, Rossellini has managed "to enact a crisis in the action image", it is a crisis in the action image through a crisis in a marriage - and it is a marriage in crisis almost as though the action image demands of Alex are at odds with the time image crystallizations of Katherine. Now Mulvey quotes Bergman in interviews saying, "he wanted to show all those grottoes with the relics and the bones and the museums and the laziness of all the statues. Hercules is always leaning on something instead of fighting something." Her comments on Hercules resemble Deleuze's remarks in Cinema 2 - Time Image, and one particular branch of it, when he says of Rivette's L'amour fou that "it is a marvellous demonstration of postures," or of Doillon's La Drolesse that it focuses upon the 'innocent attitudes...of...lying down, eating, sleeping..."
Henri Bergson once suggested that action shrinks memory, and the film offers a very unusual and paradoxical approach to the notion of infidelity, taking into account Bergson's observation, as we see that lack of action expands memory. For we notice as the film continues Alex gets more and more jealous of his wife's relationship with the long dead Charles. At first it takes the form of a casual jibe: "how very poetic, much more poetic than his verses," Alex says, after Katherine tells him how Charles stood in the rain waiting to see her. And moments later, surely well aware of Charles' name, Alex says, "Is this the museum, your friend...eh...what was his name, described in his verses?" Thus non-action expands memory, and Alex senses his wife's preoccupation with another man.
What Alex increasingly seems to notice is that Charles is part of the dead past that can be brought to life as non-action awakens that past, so we shouldn't think Katherine would feel guilt on musing over Charles even when in the presence of her husband, but much more that she'd feel irritated by her husband's heavy living in the present whilst she tries to live curiously outside of time. In one scene where Katherine drives through the streets of Napoli looking for a museum, she says out loud, "he [Alex] thinks he understands life. He ought to be punished for his pride and self-assurance." But where, we might ask, does this self-assurance lie? There's a useful comment by Deleuze where he talks in Difference and Repetition of the present as "no more than an actor, an author, an agent destined to be effaced" and maybe Alex's intolerable pride resides in the way he believes so much in this present and in the ego, and that he doesn't live in the flux of time the way Katherine increasingly wants to, but tries to live as if he were dictating time, evidenced in his numerous comments about hurrying up, moving on and being poisoned by laziness.
This is central to the nausea of temporal differences present in the film. When Katherine says to her friend "one never knows what he's thinking", Katherine could be talking about her husband's repressed nature, but it's a repression central we could say to the notion of repressed time. We sense Alex doesn't much want to talk about things because time past is of little importance next to time present moving into time future. Katherine's much more interested in time present moving into time past, evidenced particularly well in an early scene where Katherine sits and tries to explain the impact a visit to the museum had over her, whilst Alex looks to escape. As Katherine talks about the way Caesar, Nero and others "would suddenly tell you what they felt, and you could understand exactly what they were like", for Alex this suggests they weren't ascetic figures, to which Katherine agrees, but is this Alex dragging them into a present for his own non-ascetic purposes? It's a present tense exacerbated when there's the chance of a party invite that Alex seizes upon.
So if it looks like Katherine and Alex will divorce, we could say it's centrally because they don't view the world in the same manner, that Alex sees himself as an author in time narrating his own future, Katherine sees herself much more as a character being narrated by time's flux. Hence Alex's arrogance; and also Charles' modesty, a modesty strangely but aptly exaggerated by his very non-existence. He is after all also a "temple of spirit" - he is no longer a body but a pure ascetic image. But doesn't Alex's hint of jealousy suggest that he can identify with the non-corporeal? After all, though he claims he can't even remember Charles' name moments after they've been discussing him, later, when he talks about the non-ascetic figures at the museum, it's as though he's deliberately trying to contradict the late young man's words.
The film's moving towards two things here. One concerns issues of time and the other issues of marriage. But in Rossellini it's as though they're finally inextricably linked. It's the marital discord and Rossellini's attempt to understand it that releases a time-oriented image into western cinema. If we compare the film to, say, His Girl Friday, we see to what degree Rossellini situates his film in a temporal crisis. For in His Girl Friday the marital crisis gets deflected into action so that the film can still have goals. Howard Hawks's film brilliantly pulls off a triple goal: first, that Cary Grant's central character will win back his ex-wife; secondly, win back his star reporter (who happens to be his ex-wife) and thirdly, get a scoop for his newspaper. When Geoff Andrew in Time Out refers to it as "certainly the fastest comedy talkie ever made", central to the pace is this triple forward momentum. Remove all possible goals from a film and you have the burgeoning possibilities in the time-image. An Antonioni comment, quoted in Deleuze's Cinema 2 -The Time Image, comes to mind when he was talking about the possibility of a new type of cinema beyond Bicycle Thieves and neo-realism: "Now that we have today eliminated the problem of the bicycle (I am using a metaphor, try to understand beyond my words), it is important to see what there is in the spirit and heart of this man whose bicycle has been stolen, how he has adapted, what has stayed with him out of all his past experiences of the war, the post-war and everything that has happened in our country.' Where in His Girl Friday you have triple motive; in the new cinema of time you have no conceivable motive at all. You have the marital crisis in a pure enough form to destroy the image and generate a new one.
This allows the film to work like a non-corporeal, ascetic version in many ways of a film like His Girl Friday. In Hawks' film we have Grant's rival very much alive, and Grant must do all he can in actual deed to persuade his ex she should stay with him. But in Rossellini's film the rival's very much dead, and Alex himself is constrained from acting by the poisoned laziness of Italy. Certainly he tries to do things - and going to a party, taking off to Capri, picking up a prostitute - but they hardly pass for goals. And anyway, whatever Katherine's looking for from her husband has nothing to do with action. If he is to win her back, if she's no longer going to feel resentment towards him, then it must lie in thought not in deed. But then we might ask how does he win her back, how can the film arrive at its happy ending when so much suggests this is a marriage irretrievably over? Critics like Robert Phillip Kolker have had problems with this sudden shift in tone, saying in The Altering Eye that the film "finally yields to the banality of its subject more than it tries to compensate for it," while others would see it as part of Rossellini's general interest in the miraculous. As Bergman herself claimed in Charlotte Chandler's biography of the actress, Ingrid, A Personal Biography, "Roberto was, in a way, very religious. It wasn't formal religion...But he had a deep kind of feeling that there was something more to life than we know."
Though maybe we needn't have recourse to the inexplicable in this tonal shift at the end of the film, and say instead that it's merely a temporary moment of affection. Katherine asks Alex to say he loves her, and Alex does. But it's just as much a temporal moment of affection, as though Alex has been poisoned with just enough Italian laziness - and just enough dead time, if you like - to reach a state of equilibrium with Katherine. If in London Katherine so obviously fitted into Alex's life, is Alex slowly fitting into Katherine's? From this perspective we can see Voyage to Italy not so much as a film about a marital breakdown, but a marital crisis, which is not quite one and the same. Where Godard's marvellous Le Mepris/Contempt (1963) offers a marital collapse; Rossellini offers a crisis within the characters that creates a crisis within the marriage. As Bergman herself suggested, "There is no affection between them. They think that one day they woke up to find such things gone along with their passion. The real reason is, this aspect of marriage was never there to begin with." Bergman adds, "and that's what they discover when they come to Italy and see a different kind of life and love." But if the marriage is to be saved, it resides in the degree to which Katherine and Alex can resolve the problem of time. So when Katherine says near the end that there are many things she hasn't told Alex, we could say that she's kept an affair secret, but we could just as easily wonder whether she's spent too many years keeping thoughts, even banal thoughts, to herself, because her husband's one of life's doers.
Yet this is again paradoxical, for while holidaying Alex does rather less than Katherine. Katherine's off searching out museums, and the catacombs, and Pompeii; while Alex really is killing time, Katherine seems to be finding it. If for years Katherine has fitted into Alex's active time with busyness, must Alex now fit into Katherine's passive time with a degree of inner activity? After all, Alex's clearly perturbed, even jealous, by Charles Lewington's presence, and a present that is obviously intangible. Out of this intangibility must he accept that there is a place for Lewington's words: "Temple of the Spirit. No longer bodies / But pure ascetic images." What the films sets out to do is not to show a marriage breaking down, but a tentative reconciliation within a marital crisis.
Many critics have of course talked about the importance of landscape in the film. Rossellini himself in Cahiers du Cinema mentioned the significance of location. "It was very important for me to show Italy, Naples, that strange atmosphere which is mingled with a very real, very immediate, very deep feeling, the sense of eternal life", while Mulvey as we've noted calls her article 'Vesuvian Topographies'. But, anthropocentric as it might be, time is finally more important than space. It is out of the use of location that Rossellini shows time's workings. Yet nevertheless there's something in his use of Naples that reveals time passing particularly well. "This is a film about the perceived difference between Anglo-Saxons and Latins. I wanted to show northern people that we are not monkeys in a zoo, as they sometimes regard us" Rossellini said, quoted in the Bergman biography. There are the wealthy Neapolitans talking about how sweet it is to do nothing, and there's Natalie explaining to Katherine how the people of Naples have a close relationship with the dead. Then there are the numerous monuments to the deceased, including the catacombs and Pompeii. It was also the location where Charles was posted during the war. So clearly location's of vital importance; but it is important in relation to temporal layering, in contrast to a desert location, for example, which would demand the location's single layer of encompassing space to absorb the characters.
In such a concentration on space, a film might still concern itself first and foremost with action, with the need to get out of the desert, and the skills so required. But there are no practical skills expected in Voyage to Italy, because, as the woman says at the party, it's a locale that leaves people emotionally shipwrecked, and where it is our inner space rather than our outer space which navigates. Alex, all at sea on dry land, maybe finally realises he needs his wife more than he thinks. If it is a pang of jealousy which initially sets in motion Alex's move towards inner space, near the end of the film he confesses, after seeing the casts at Pompeii, "I must admit I was pretty moved myself." So the question we need to ask ourselves at the end of the film where Alex and Katherine hug is whether the characters will be able to live amicably in this twofold sense of time: time past and time present. For each there's a sense of nausea, we might say, in moving from one temporal sphere to another. It seems it has taken Naples to make Katherine aware of just how much she's been following Alex's notion of time, and it's also taken Naples to show Alex how time is much more multi-faceted than he is willing to admit.
When we said at the beginning of this piece that Katherine's a moral character, it resides not finally in her apparent fidelity to her husband, per se. No, it resides much more in a curious temporal morality, a morality of remembering, if you like. If Katherine's so often frustrated, angry and irritated by Alex it rests in this sense that he lacks a temporal morality she increasingly searches out. Whether by the end of the film, in his comment on Pompeii, he finds this temporal morality is a debatable point, and could lead us to see the happy ending as no more than a momentary lull in a marital crisis, or the realisation of time past proving as relevant to Alex as time future as he tries to save the marriage.
© Tony McKibbin