Grace and Modernism in “Journey to Italy” (“Viaggio in Italia”)

Journey-to-Italy-5587_1Take it for what it’s worth, but speaking as a bachelor, if there is a greater movie about marriage than Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954) floating around out there in filmdom, then I haven’t seen it.  (If you know of a superior example, feel free to mention it in the comments section.)  Ever since having seen Martin Scorsese’s documentary My Voyage in Italy in which the famed director takes the viewer on a personal journey through his own experience of Italian film and how it has influenced his work, I have wanted to track down many of the films of Roberto Rossellini, particularly his several 1950’s collaborations with his wife at the time, Ingrid Bergman.  At the time of seeing Scorsese’s doc, I believe I had only seen Rossellini’s groundbreaking neorealist masterpiece, Rome, Open City.  Unfortunately for me, many of his other films remained unavailable on DVD and even VHS (for those of you who can remember back that far).  Gradually, however, I managed to catch several of his films, thanks to a few Criterion collection DVD releases and a couple of retrospective screenings in Los Angeles, but Journey to Italy continued to illude me.  Fortunately, TCM recently programmed a month long tribute to the director and much to my delight Journey to Italy was included.

By 1954, Rossellini had progressed beyond the neorealist stylings of his early films and was pioneering a new, richer kind of cinema.  In his review for the Cahier du cinéma, François Truffaut called it the first “modern film”, by which he meant the principles of modernism, which for decades had already influenced the world of literature, poetry, and painting, was finally beginning to seep into the world of film.  Novelists like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and William Faulkner; poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; and painters like Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso had revolutionized their particular art forms (in some ways for better and in others for worse) by making the subjective, individual experience the focus of the work rather than the objective, external event.  As a result, devices such as first-person narration, stream-of-consciousness, and Impressionism had become dominant forms of artistic representation since the late 19th century in every form of media except the cinema.  That is, until Rossellini.

Truffaut was right to describe the film as modernist, but he was not complete in saying so because it seems to me that there are elements at work in the film which transcend modernism, and those elements are what I like to call “grace”.  The film tells the story of a middle aged British couple played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders whose marriage is quickly collapsing in on itself due to bitterness, petty jealousy, and wounded ego’s.  They seemed destined for divorce, and as a viewer, one might be forgiven for thinking that after the way they treat each other, it might well be for the best.  Nevertheless, due to a recently deceased relative, the two are forced together for a furlough to Naples in order to sell a piece of inherited property.  While there, they flirt with the idea of divorce, while each in their own way toys with the idea of an extramarital affair prefiguring the self-imposed temptations presented to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (another excellent film about marriage).

Bergman’s and Sander’s personalities seem to be as different as the landscapes in which they wander; her romanticism vs. his condescending irony is as stark a contrast as the vitality of Naples (streets teeming with pregnant women) is with the desolation of Pompeii, which the couple visits accompanied by an archaeologist friend who is excavating the ruins of the destroyed island.  Rossellini’s isolated characters, as well as his mastery of empty space within the frame of his images can almost be seen as a turning point in the history of cinema.  Fellow countryman, Michelangelo Antonioni would later turn similar forms of alienation into an artform unto itself.  Jean-Luc Godard would take Rossellini’s existential inquest and deconstruct them to revolutionary effect.  And the European artfilm movements of the 1950’s and 60’s are born.  But Rossellini doesn’t stop there.

While viewing the excavations on Pompeii, they witness the plaster casting of a buried human form, killed long ago by the eruption of Vesuvius, now found buried under layers of volcanic debris, frozen in a position of everyday life–a snapshot in time caught at the unexpected moment of death.  It’s a powerful moment both as a viewer and for the Bergman character who is brought to tears forced to suddenly confront the fragility of life.  The moment is not only a profound recognition of human temporality, but also a metaphor for the relationship between Bergman and Sanders.  Even he, the anti-sentimentalist, appears to be moved by the sight.

Rossellini would later go on to boast about his atheism, but for those who have seen his films, it’s sometimes difficult to take the claim seriously.  He was fascinated with finding the miraculous within everyday life, and like Flannery O’Connor, with exploring the seemingly arbitrary workings of grace.  In films such as Rome, Open City or The Flowers of St. Francis, grace flows as naturally from the story as a prayer from the lips of a saint, but in later films such as StromboliEuropa ’51, and Journey to Italy, grace works much more mysteriously and more shockingly, because it’s almost unexpected.  In the films finale, after having returned to the mainland from Pompeii and with marital dissolution seemingly inevitable, the couple accidentally drive into the middle of a religious parade in which shouts of a miracle having happened ring out among the turbulent crowd.  The two are inadvertently swept up into the surging masses and separated.  As one critic put it, their reunion amidst the “…noisy crowd becomes an intimate epiphany, and [at once] a rigorously understated film becomes an overwhelming vision.”  It is here in which Rossellini’s film transcends the stylistic trappings of modernism and shows a deeper understanding of human nature than any artistic movement can on its own provide.  It is here in which alienation makes way for genuine connection, and in which existential angst and despair finds hope in the love of another.

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Wise Blood, or, the strange marriage of John Huston and Flannery O’Connor

wisebloodPeriodically at my church St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church, I host an evening in which I show a film and then lead a discussion afterwards focusing on the finer points of film artistry and how, through the vehicle of art, we as viewers might come to know God more deeply and have a fuller understanding of our own place as human beings.  This past Sunday, I showed John Huston’s Wise Blood and in the following post will attempt to distill 45 minutes worth of discussion into a brief essay on this unique and sadly underseen film.

Paradoxically, the film of Wise Blood succeeds because it is an atheists rendering of a profoundly Catholic novel.  It is this same paradox which perhaps explains why Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew remains arguably the most moving depiction of Christ yet put to film.  Director John Huston’s adaption of the Flannery O’Connor novel is almost startlingly direct, and this is its strength.  Whereas a Catholic or even Protestant filmmaker might have been too taken by O’Connor’s near allegory, Huston is uninterested, and instead presents the story with the textural details of the physical world of small town Georgia, emphasizing character, story, and location, rather than theme.  Huston’s film succeeds because consciously or not, he recognized that O’Connor’s work exists within the physical world, and her themes exist to serve her story rather than the other way around.

Wise Blood is an unusual film by just about any standards and is perhaps destined to always be a cult favorite rather than a mainstream success.  It tells the story of an ambitious young man named Hazel Motes who returns home after being discharged from the Army and promptly begins to preach the Church of Christ Without Christ in which “the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and the dead stay that way.”  Finding himself surrounded by false prophets, charlatans, conmen, and charismatic revivalists (including flashbacks of his fiery preaching grandfather played by Huston himself), Motes’ gospel is one where there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no need to be redeemed, because to Motes, “No one with a good car needs to be justified.”  Brad Dourif plays Motes with all of the zeal of O’Connor’s prose, as does the equally compelling supporting casting, including, Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty, Amy Wright, and Dan Shor as a troubled young man who becomes Motes’ only disciple.

Hazel Motes fits squarely within the O’Connor tradition of “Christ-haunted” characters.  To her, the South was hardly “Christ-centered” but “is most certainly Christ-haunted” and Hazel Motes might well be the prophet of that vision.  The book describes his obsession by saying, “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on water and not know it and suddenly know it and drown.”  The imagery is simultaneously Biblical (referencing St. Peter’s brief walk on the water) and ghostly, the spirit of which is wonderfully captured in Dourif’s performance.  It is from such descriptions that I feel the figure of Christ portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ seems more at home in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor than the work of the Gospel writers, and why that film is so successful as a film and questionable as theology.

But the Christ-haunting of Hazel Motes is not simply for dramatic value, and certainly not to promote any kind of religious hysteria, but because the story is about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.  “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”  Motes must be broken down in order to be rebuilt, and he must lose all that he has been clinging to so that the only hand left to hold onto to save him from those drowning waters is the hand of Christ.  Far from being hopeless and brutal as some readers/viewers have claimed over the years, both O’Connor’s novel and Huston’s film affirm that amidst a world of charlatans and competing religious hoopla, there is a genuine faith to be found; a faith that is seldom easy and often painful (anyone who advocates an easy, pain free faith is probably trying to sell you something), but very real and life-changing.  O’Connor recognized this, and while Huston may not have, he was smart enough to know a good story when he saw one.