An unhappily married couple attempts to find direction and insight while vacationing in Naples.An unhappily married couple attempts to find direction and insight while vacationing in Naples.An unhappily married couple attempts to find direction and insight while vacationing in Naples.
At the heart of it we have the familiar trope of a marriage falling apart, melodrama stuff. But modern, meaning understated and without the soaring emotion. We fill the gaps, providing our own understanding of how a relationship works. We participate as players.
So it's about this affair whose nothingness is revealed by the surrounding world, it withers away; the lavish villa with endless views of far horizon, the large, empty veranda where the two of them languish in comfortable lounge chairs. A little outside, it's the countryside of Naples that engulfs them with languid time and hot, lazy weather, a tabula rasa dotted with old ruins.
We're taken on a pilgrimage of these ruins, as the woman looking for a portent that will divine her predicament. The museum filled with statues, the old Roman fort, Vesuvius and Pompeii; Rossellini presents them as mute, ascetic images, images all pertaining to some austere representation into which the woman projects her own world coming to pass. None of them, of course, hold any answers, except as what they are - reminders of the perishable, impermanent world in which we try so hard to grow roots.
Meanwhile, back in Capri, the cynical husband is squandered in his own aimless voyage for something that will fill the time. He courts a woman, much like he did his wife perhaps all those years ago. He feigns and thrusts for desire. Finally he returns home with the same void gnawing inside. Passable stuff, as in La Notte some years later, but the important stuff is with the woman's journey; the Stromboli part of the film as it were.
It is all about the painful process by which ruins are made, time into memory. We are privy to one such enactment in ancient Pompeii (then still being excavated): into the hole once occupied by a dead body, that holds nothing now and is hollow except with shape, the archaeologists pour plaster in order to surmise the shape of that past. Yet what they retrieve is merely the replica of empty space.
Oh, there's the stupidly saccharine finale, no doubt imposed once again on Rossellini by his Italian distributors at Titanus. It's something to be on the lookout for, for how marvelously Rosssellini confounds his censors.
As the couple magically decide they finally love each other, the mob of peasants that surrounds them - participating in some local religious ceremony - cries out in jubilee about 'il miracolo!'. The two lovers are swept aside by people rushing to see, reunited in this nonsensical miracle. The final shot is of police offers looking stern as they inspect the scene, like the censors would the film. Whether or not we choose to accept the one miracle, boils down to whether or not we would the other.
I want to summarize Rossellini here; he's largely forgotten now - probably because when the cinema he envisioned finally took hold, he had already abandoned it. But he's one of the most important filmmakers we have known. You find out that so much of what eventually blossomed with film, grew first roots with him. His transcendent vision was exceptional.
The only misgiving - slight, very slight - is that everything is relatively precise with meaning. Empty space abounds here, the pure ascetic images, yet is mostly filled for us. We're left with simply unearthing the cast, reading the signs. Perhaps I'm saying this because he envisioned so far ahead that I'm comparing him in my mind with later filmmakers who abstracted deeper. No matter, Rossellini ushered cinema far enough.
Now it would be Antonioni's turn to shoulder it; he would supply the breathing, incomplete space into which the imagination can pour into. There is no cast that explains away with him, only the means of immersion into a space empty, waiting-to-be-filled with us (not by us). The ensuing voyage that finally brings us to The Passenger is one of the most fascinating that I know of, but that is covered elsewhere.
- Aug 6, 2011