On Wednesday night, New York’s Film Forum unveiled a gorgeous digital restoration (courtesy Janus Films) of Roberto Rossellini’s masterful relationship drama Voyage to Italy. The film marked the fourth in a string of six films over a five-year period that the director completed with his then-wife Ingrid Bergman. An enthusiastic crowd gathered for the sold-out event as the famed couple’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, was on hand to introduce and speak about the film, her parents and their legacy.
Isabella began by reading from her mother’s autobiography, a book that would allow the daughter “to know my version of what happened.” She continued: “Roberto wrote the screenplay by day and George (Sanders) had a series of nervous breakdowns.” The crowd laughed, probably imagining the idea of this wry Hollywood star working on a comparatively ramshackle on-the-fly Italian production.
“He was on the phone every night talking to his psychiatrist back in Hollywood,” she explained. “Roberto just couldn’t believe this. We didn’t know whether to send for his psychiatrist, or Zsa Zsa Gabor, his wife. We finally settled for Gabor. She looked beautiful, she sat there, and we put them all together in a hotel. Working with Roberto simply defeated him. I remember, in Amalfi, the tears were just pouring down his cheeks. I said ‘What happened, George?’ He replied, ‘I am so unhappy in this movie, that’s what’s the matter! There is no dialogue, I don’t know what’s going on or what will happen tomorrow. It’s impossible. I cannot take it!’ It was only when Voyage to Italy was finished and when George went back to Hollywood that he was ready to admit, to his own astonishment, that he had really enjoyed the experience. On what other set would a director put his arm around his actor and say, ‘It’s not the first bad film you’ve been in, and it won’t be the last, so cheer up’?”
As she offered these and other priceless anecdotes on Wednesday night, Isabella lovingly referred to her parents as “Mama” and “Father,” exuding a sense of intimacy backed up by the sheer delight on her face when she reminisced about them.
Of the film itself, she noted her amazement at seeing a review on the front page of that day’s New York Times Arts section. “Better late than never,” wrote the paper’s A.O. Scott. Isabella expanded on that by explaining that, despite the star power of its director and leading lady, the film was never reviewed by the paper upon its initial release. “The films my parents did together were considered such failures that the critics gave up on them and didn’t even bother with reviews,” she added with bemusement.
“This is a film that is meant to be observed rather than a film that addresses or instructs your emotion”
Even the American critics that did review the film upon its release back in 1955, though, seemed thrown off by its then-subversive narrative structure. Voyage to Italy captures a particular moment in an unhappy marriage between well-off Alex and Katherine Joyce (Sanders and Bergman, respectively). The couple travels to Italy to sell a bequeathed estate near Naples and Pompeii, a historically war-torn environment that seems to inspire brute honesty in them: They agree in no uncertain terms that a divorce would be best. If the film’s narrative is straightforward, the way action unfolds is resoundingly original: Rossellini follows the couple as they individually search for answers among the nearby landscapes, both urban and desolate. The dialogue is sparse and the natural landscape acts as an integral characterizing agent, contextualizing the couple in urban frenzy and famed ruins.
“This film has been misunderstood for 60 years, so let me explain,” Isabella said with delight. “It was saved by the Cahiers du cinéma and directors like François Truffaut and [Jean-Luc] Godard. It is believed to be the inspiration for Michelangelo Antonioni’s film as well.” She speaks, of course, of Antonioni’s 1960 masterpiece L’Avventura, a film clearly inspired by Rossellini’s stark landscapes and emotional discord. Recent directors continue to hail the film as a masterpiece, with Martin Scorsese (Isabella’s ex-husband) speaking at length about Rossellini’s work, Voyage to Italy in particular, in his excellent survey of Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy.
“This is a film that is meant to be observed rather than a film that addresses or instructs your emotion,” she stated earnestly. It is because of precisely that quality that Voyage to Italy remains as resonant and influential as it does even some 60 years out.