Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia: Miraculous Death and the World of Perception

In his 1948 radio lecture “Art and the World of Perception” Maurice Merleau-Ponty boldly stated, “[modern] Cinema has yet to provide us with many films that are works of art from start to finish”[1]. What matters most, he argues, is not what happens in the film, but rather how it happens. The story, its ideas, and its particularities are rendered irrelevant by the beauty of its ‘cinematorgraphical rhythm’. This rhythm is defined by Merleau-Ponty as the film’s selection of episodes, the shots and length of each, their sequencing and the sound that is to accompany or not accompany the narrative progression. A successful film, like a work of art, he argues, is “something that one would perceive”. Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Viaggio in Italia is an example of the failure of modernist cinema to create such an experience of filmic art. The terrain of Rossellini’s film presents innumerable opportunity for perception and encounter- encounter with the self and with the other, with the sacred and the deceased- that is continuously denied by the characters and camera itself.

The ‘vesuvian topography’, to draw from the writing of Laura Mulvey, possesses a life of its own. Beyond the hills of Naples and beneath the Phlegrean Fields of volcanic ash, a spirit stirs yearning to burst forward from confinement. To engage with this pervading and ethereal spirit, one must inevitably encounter death. The film’s merit emerges in the few yet poignant moments of this encounter, moments engendering miracle, engagement with the world of perception and ultimately the opening of the filmic space to art.

The imprint of death, like a work of art, is both beautiful and tragic. The perception of art, like that of death, is miraculous and demystifying; it is a subliminal communion with ones own mortality. In its last moments, Rossellini’s film accepts death and the miraculous and cedes to a world wherein the senses pervade to subsume a less than imaginative narrative. Upon confrontation with mortality, the banalities of the Joyce marriage cease to dominate the film. The true weight of existence, that is, the struggle simply to live with conviction or to believe in something greater than oneself is the ‘real’ Rossellini attempts to uncover. Perhaps the merit of Viaggio in Italia lies in the ability of its fiction to test the filmic boundaries and conventions of realism and to engage with the ‘real’ in life as both tragic and miraculous[2].

Under Rossellini’s direction, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders convincingly enact the deterioration of the Joyce marriage. Katherine has accompanied Alex on a journey from London to Naples in order to sell the villa of his recently deceased uncle Homer. Over the course of seven days, Rossellini subjects his audience to a series of petty quarrels between two cold lovers, who are drawn ever more distant by their inability to overcome bouts of jealousy and miscommunication. The blessings of leisure and a Southern Italian landscape are overlooked and unappreciated by the Joyce’s Northern sentiment of work and rigid scheduling. Seemingly, it is their inability to co-habitate that sends each on a journey of encounter ending ultimately in their shared experience of death at Pompeii.

The first indication of death’s stirring presence occurs on the second day of their travel. Reclining on the terrace, in an oversized cuddler recliner, Katherine recalls her former lover, a poet named Charles Luyton, whose premature death haunts her like a recurring dream throughout the film. She muses on his poetry: “Temple of the spirit, No longer bodies, but pure, ascetic images, compared to which thought itself becomes leaden, opaque, heavy”. Indeed, the burden of death weighs on the mind of Rossellini’s female protagonist, clouding both thought and perception.

Katherine’s daydream on the terrace, Mulvey astutely notes, may be read as a resurrection of the ghost of Charles Luyton[3]. In a quest to reveal himself to her, this angel of death becomes manifest in Katherine’s numerous encounters with the imagery of bereavement. Her witness of mortality extends beyond the chilling visit to the Fontanelle cemetery, a haven for the deceased- souls claimed and immortalized by the living who grieve their departure. In the streets of Naples, the presence of death is palpable: from the procession of a funeral party that halts traffic to the continuous appearance of pregnant women, whose wombs bear the promise of new life, yet also anticipate its inevitable end. The world of the living in Rossellini’s film thus reveals itself as a home for the dead and the boundaries between this world and the next are rendered indistinguishable. Katherine’s unease in the face of death is a marker of anxiety and complacency. In fear she turns away from death blocking her consciousness, and the filmic space, from engaging with a mortality that lends life and art its true pathos.

It is not until Katherine’s journey to Pompeii that death permeates the rigid boundaries of realism Rossellini has constructed, enabling the film to become a space for art and the miracle of perception. On the seventh day of their travel Tony takes Alex and Katherine to visit the excavation site at Pompeii. In this sequence, comprised of thirty shots, Rossellini employs the camera to create a rhythm of heightened emotion, manifesting itself as the couple bears witness to the immortalized death of two lovers.

Tony, Katherine, and Alex are depicted from a high angle standing above the excavation site. The next shot, the longest in the sequence, follows Tony’s gesture over the expansive terrain, panning rightward to reveal the numerous locations of death’s indexical marking. Having followed a large orbicular path, the camera descends from above a group of men preparing to fill the hollow cavity with plaster.

After establishing Pompeii as the site of death, Rossellini begins to focus on the process of creating death’s image. Now in medium frame, each shot is accompanied by Tony’s narration of the ‘lost wax’ process. A particular cadence develops wherein each shot of the procedure is mirrored by a shot of Tony speaking and a subsequent shot of Katherine and Alex as they observe in a growing state of unease. Framed in close-up, the next series of shots reveal only arms and hands at work, shoveling and dusting in an anthropological quest to uncover death. Arms and legs are revealed with increasing speed; each shot of a new discovery answered by one of the couple in disturbing awe. Two figures emerge finally from their eternal resting place: “two people just as they were at the moment of death”. “Un uomo e una donna”, the excavator notes. “A man and a woman”, Tony repeats to himself with resignation. These two figures of death, he speculates, were man and wife. “They found death together, united”. Upon this realization, Katherine begins to weep and runs out of the frame.

Rossellini’s Pompeii sequence is the decisive moment wherein realism as a cinematic genre yields to the ‘real’ of death and its centrality to the course of human existence. Katherine’s generous and authentic perception of death is an engagement of the body and the consciousness with its own mortality. For Merleau-Ponty, this engagement in the world of perception opens Rossellini’s film to the possibility of making art. An understanding of Merleau-Ponty’s betrothal to the aesthetic image reveals that for Rossellini, to experience art is to experience a sort of death. The profundity of this engagement will suggest that both death and art are miracles of demystification. By way of death, Viaggio in Italia leads the viewer to the subliminal encounter of miracle and necessitates surrender as the key to this domain.

Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD leaving behind a ruinous landscape that would become a site of pilgrimage by the mid twentieth century. Beginning in 1839 photographers embarked on a journey to the Bay of Naples to record and immortalize the image of death left behind at Pompeii[4]. Giorgio Sommer’s 1875 photograph of plaster casted bodies preserves the moment of death forever in chilling detail.

Giorgio Sommer, Pompeii Victims  1875

Sommer’s photograph implicates the viewer, almost cruelly, in the moment of a stranger’s death. By way of the photographer’s presence in the capturing the image, the body of the viewer is engaged just as readily as her mind. To look, therefore, is also to feel and to reenact the death of another. Merleau-Ponty writes that the space of modern art is a ‘space which the heart feels, space in which we too are located, space which is close to us and with which we are organically connected”[1]. Bearing witness to a photograph places the viewer in the intimate space of that which is depicted. In allowing one to witness the death of another, Sommer’s photograph does not engender innocent engagement. Rather, to take a photograph, and by extension, to witness a photograph is to place oneself in the space and place of death, if not to become violently complicit in its process.

In a similar manner, Rossellini’s filmic excavation of Pompeii employs the camera toward the aim of offering a permanent record of death. Rossellini and Sommer share a disturbing quality as artists: this is, an interest not in what existed in life but instead in what death has left behind. A still from Rossellini’s film depicts the petrified couple, whose souls beckon the viewer’s engagement from within their plaster casts. 

The mechanical nature of uncovering death, as Rossellini and Sommer present it, is reflective  of each medium. As technological media, film and photography involve the dissection   of what is captured.  This violence results in an image of suffering and death to be contemplated for ages from the outside. Perhaps tragically, yet perhaps also for the sake of humanity’s ability to continue in this life, art metamorphoses death into a thing of beauty.

Considered in relation to painting, Rossellini’s Pompeii sequence speaks to the texture and material of death. In both film and painting, something of the artist’s physical presence marks the catastrophe of art, in other words, it is forever of the flesh although the flesh may cease to exist. Merleau-Ponty notes, “If I accept the tutelage of perception, I find I am ready to understand the work of art. For it too is a totality of flesh”[1]. Rossellini’s figures of death are in themselves works of art, remnants of flesh amalgamated with the earth by way of liquid plaster. I turn to Lucifer, painted by Jackson Pollock in 1947, as a means to uncover flesh, death and remnants of dirt in a work of art. Jackson Pollock, Lucifer

Sinuous drippings of paint stretch forth their dancing limbs colliding in a nebula, an interstellar cloud of dust, heat, and ionized gases. The paint on the canvas dominates the artist, seeming to dictate to him its proper positioning. Its gelatinous body is spread across an empty canvas mixing with sweat, dust and cigarette ash. This very act of giving oneself, surrendering one’s waxy flesh in the form of paint, results in the death of the artist from the inside out.   The heavy impasto of each drip becomes Pollock’s own Pompeii-like encaustic casting. For Rossellini, liquid plaster petrifies as lava once did, becoming the very material of death. Ultimately, the material of death is for Pollock and Rossellini, the key to artistic production.

By way of the Pompeii sequence, Viaggio in Italia presents art and death as precursors to the miraculous. Through the filmic visible, Rossellini conjures the invisible figure of the angel of death. This figure, Perhaps Charles Luyton, Katherine’s former lover, or perhaps the Pompeii castings, beckons Katherine to surrender to the miraculous. The angel of death is initially an unfamiliar figure to Katherine and to those who bear witness to art. To discover this unknown figure, I turn to Merleau-Ponty in his elucidation of art and the miraculous. We encounter objects, he writes, “that do not pass quickly before our eyes in the guise of objects we “know well” but, on the contrary, hold our gaze, ask questions of it, convey to it in a bizarre fashion the very secret of their substance, the very mode of their material existence and which, so to speak, stand ‘bleeding before us”[1]. Merleau-Ponty’s elucidation of the art object suggests that it is continually presenting itself to the viewer, reappearing time and again to divulge its secrets.

In a similar manner, the angel of death in Rossellini’s film seeks to reveal itself to Katherine, ‘bleeding’ continuously in her mind as the poetry of Charles Luyton: “Temple of the spirit, No longer bodies, but pure, ascetic images, compared to which thought itself becomes leaden, opaque, heavy”. Upon her encounter at Pompeii with the embodied angels of death, Katherine surrenders her world and faces mortality, an act that lends her life and her marriage reason for being.

Throughout the sequence, Rossellini’s viewer may listen to Tony’s narration of the birth of the angels of death. Through the process of filling a hollowed space in the ground with plaster, figures of the dead could be retrieved in a manner akin to the sculpting of a statue. The “lost wax” technique takes its roots in a seventeenth-century process of casting bronze sculpture. Gianlorenzo Bernini, infamous sculptor of the Italian Baroque, employed the “lost lizard” process to bring to life his own angels of death. Bernini, Baldacchino (detail)

For the putti of his Baldacchino at St. Peter’s Basillica, Bernini created a life size wax original of the child angel. He then applied molten bronze to the hollowed inside of the wax model, melting it away from the inside out. Often, to achieve a naturalistic effect, he would cast lizards, leafs, or bees in bronze to immortalize their presence in sculpture. In the context of Rossellini’s film, the putti of the Baldacchino give life to the miraculous and figuration to the angel of death.

To end his film, Rossellini places the miraculous in a religious context. The final sequence depicts a religious ceremony, perhaps a saint’s feast day, which has filled the streets of Naples with believers.

The music of the parade begins to sound, growing louder and more fervent. Point of view shots from inside the couple’s car establish the anxiety they feel as they enter the sacred space and are swallowed by procession. To the backdrop of music and a rustling crowd, Katherine and Alex converse about the failure of their marriage before coming to a final stop. Unable to move any further through the crowd, Alex decides to exit the car. Rossellini cuts to a high angle shot of the parading children, hands crossed carrying a banner for the saint. Here, it is clear that the camera is employed to draw a distinction between the couple and the sea of believers who readily accept the impending miracle.

The most beautiful shot in Rossellini’s film, perhaps the only shot that may truly be considered art, is but a few seconds long. The figure of a saint is shown in close frame, eyes downcast as if she is looking upon her people with the sorrow of love. Viaggio Still (angel)

Rossellini presents a pure optical situation, to employ Deleuzean terminology, as a means to incite the final drama of his narrative: the reconciliation of lovers. This angel of death seems as if she has come alive, able to carry herself through the procession. Her affecting presence is the final gesture of Rossellini’s film, constituting as well the final gesture of the miraculous. The camera cuts to a framed image of Katherine and Alex subsumed by the crowd. For the second time in the film, a crane is employed to create a seamless wave of movement over the sea below. Making a large sweep to the left, the shot reveals a crowd eager in anticipation of the miracle. From above, the lives of these people, insignificant to the overall narrative, become more real than Alex and Katherine. It is by the miracle of their existence and the ‘real’ which constitutes their belief, that Rossellini’s film is lent pathos in its final moments.

Katherine and Alex argue. After screaming “ti odio” she is swept away by a crowd of people beginning to scream of a miracle. The last shots in the sequence occur rapidly as they depict Katherine in the crowd, a blind man who has been cured, and Alex in pursuit of Katherine. Emotion escalates toward the reunion and embrace of the two lovers alone in a crowd of people. A still from this final sequence depicts the cured man, hands raised to his face (figure 6). This man, the epitome of the ‘real’ and of perception in Rossellini’s film, may be read as the artist in his final gesture. The final gesture of the artist is to accept the miraculous inherent in his creation and to give of his life, of his very being, for the proliferation of miracle. In the face of death, the burden that haunts is not lifted; neither is it lessened. Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia suggests that in the face of death and art, the viewer may come to recognize the miraculous as the most ‘real’ of all human experience.

 

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The World of Perception. (London: Routledge, 2004) 73.

[2] Laura Mulvey. “Vesuvian Topographies: The Eruption of the Past in Journey to Italy”

(London: BFI Pub. 2000) 97. Mulvey attributes Rossellini’s elevation of realism to the “real” to his consistent return to geographic location of the film. I have posited engagement with death as that which transcends the filmic boundaries of realism. Cinematic realism in the context of post WWII Italian film refers to the commitment of representation to providing filmic instances of real life.

[3] Mulvey 98.

[4] http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2008/pompeii/book/index.shtm national gallery of art, Giorgio Sommer

[5]Merleau-Ponty 41

[6] Merleau-Ponty 70-71

[7] Merleau-Ponty 69-70

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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