Journey to Italy

Eric Rohmer: 'The Land of Miracles'

('La Terre du Miracle', Cahiers du Cinema 47, May 1955, written under his real name, Maurice Scherer)

The term 'neo-realism' has become so debased that I would hesitate to use it in relation to Viaggio in Italia if Rossellini hadn't in fact claimed it himself. He sees this film as embodying a 'neo-realism' that is purer and deeper than in any of his earlier films. At least that was his comment to one member of the audience at the Paris premiere. One can certainly talk about evolution in the work of the author of Rome, Open City. If it is true that the more recent films can only at a pinch be categorized along with all the other Italian productions - including the films of Fellini, who is his most long-standing collaborator and the closest to him in ideas - it is not true that he has denied his old loves: he has just contented himself with being out in front, condemning his rivals to staying safely where they are.

With each attempt he goes through the roof at such breakneck speed that we don't even have time to adjust our instruments to measure his performance.

The public reacts in a particular way to what is new. Let's take another look at the accounts of the first exhibitions of the Impressionists or the Fauves, the first performance of The Rite of Spring: we hear exclamations like 'He can't paint', 'I could do as well myself', 'It's not painting, it's not music, it's not cinema'. Just as the art students of the last century forged a c?nvention of the 'posed', so there has emerged in the darkened auditona a convention of the natural. As deliberately as Manet's refusal of chiaroscuro, the author of Viaggio in ltalia scorns the easy choice - of a cinematic language underlaid with fifty years of use. Before Rossellini even the most inspired and original of film-makers would feel duty-bound to use the legacy of his precursors. He was familiar with all the ways that, by Some kind of conditioned reflex, particular emotional reactions could be provoked in an audience - down to the smallest gesture or movement; and he would play on those reflexes, not try to break them. He would create art, a personal work, that is, but made out of a shared cinematic substance. For Rossellini this substance does not exist. His actors do not behave like the actors in other films, except in the sense that their gestures and attitudes are common to all human beings, but they urge us to look for something else behind this behaviour, something other than what OUr natural role as spectators would prompt us to recognize. The old relationship between the sign and the idea is shattered: in its place there emerges a new and disconcerting one.

Such is the elevated and brand-new conception of realism that we discover here. It's not long since I praised Stromboli or Europa '51 for their documentary aspects. But in its construction Viaggio in Italia is no closer to the documentary than it is to the melodrama or the fictional romance.

Certainly no documentary camera could have recorded the experiences of this English couple in this way, or, more to the point, in this spirit. Bear in mind that even the most direct, least contrived scene is always inscribed in the convention of editing, continuity and selection, and that convention is denounced by the director with the same virulence as he displays in his attack on suspense. His direction of the actors is exact, imperious, and yet it is not at all 'acted'. The story is loose, free, full of breaks, and yet nothing could be further from the amateur. I confess my incapacity to define adequately the merits of a style so new that it defies all definition.

If only in its framing and its camera movements (where even the greatest directors have achieved no innovations for a long time now) this film is unlike any others. Through its magic alone it manages to endow the screen with that third dimension so sought after for the last three years by the best technicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

I am aware of a possible objection: 'Don't attribute to supreme skill What may only be the accidental result of carelessness.' Certainly not! You don't produce literature by pulling words out of a hat, and you don't create a piece of real cinema as original as this just by wandering along the road with an 8mm camera in your hand. It is strange how everything that lacks order is like automatic writing. The greatest new eruptions can only come out of the narrowest and least discernible crack. With a simple puff of her cigarette on the slopes of Vesuvius, the heroine unleashes a thick cloud of smoke - this is how Rossellini, master magician, more than tames his material. He relies on its complicity as a musician performing in a cave would turn the echo to his advantage.

I confess that as I watched the film my thoughts went off in directions far from those of the plot itself, like someone who goes into the cinema to kill time between appointments and, with his mind more on his own concerns than those of the film, is surprised to discover himself trying to read the time on a watch that one of the actors on the screen is wearing.

This kind of illusion is certainly not one that an actor would take pride in creating. I admit that I was plunged into all kinds of absurd trains of thought by things like the pattern of George Sanders's tweed jacket, how old he must be, how much he's aged since Rebecca or All About Eve, Ingrid Bergman's hairstyle, not to speak of the shape of the skulls in the catacombs or new archaeological methods - for which a more sustained tempo in the plot wouldn't have allowed time. But I noticed that even while my imagination seemed to wander, time and time again it forced me back relentlessly to the very subject of the film. In this film in which everything appears incidental, everything, even the craziest mental digressions, is essentially a part of the film. This argument will be taken for no more than it's worth. Before a work of this stature, a plea of extenuating circumstances is inappropriate.

Viaggio in Italia is the story of a couple's estrangement and their subsequent reconciliation. A standard dramatic theme, and the theme also of Sunrise. Rossellini and Murnau are the only two film-makers who have made Nature the active element, the principal element in the story. Both, because they reject the facility of the psychological style and scorn understatement or allusion, have had the remarkable privilege of conducting us into the most secret regions of the soul. Secret? Let's make our meaning clear: not the troubled zones of the libido, but the broad daylight of consciousness. Because they refuse to illuminate the mechanics of choice, both films safeguard its freedom all the better. Thus the soul is delivered up to its own resources, and finds no higher purpose than in the recognition of order in the world. Both these films are a drama with in fact three characters; the third is God. But God does not have the same face in both. In the first a 'pre-ordained harmony' governs at one and the same time the movements of the soul and the vicissitudes of the cosmos: nature and the heart of man beat with the same pulse. The second goes beyond this order - whose magnificence it can equally reveal - and uncovers that supreme disorder that is known as the miracle.

In the course of the interview that he gave to Cahiers last year, Rossellini talked about the 'sense of eternal life' and the 'presence of the miracle' which had been revealed to him on the soil of Naples. These two phrases are eloquent enough in themselves and will exempt me from lengthier commentary. From the museum of Naples to the catacombs, from the sulfur springs of Vesuvius to the ruins of Pompeii, we accompany the heroine along the spiritual path that leads from the platitudes of the ancients on the fragility of man to the Christian idea of immortality. And If the film succeeds - logically, you could say - through a miracle, it is because that miracle was in the order of things whose order, in the end, depends on a miracle. Such a philosophy is foreign to the art of our time.

The greatest works - even those most tinged with mysticism - seem to find their inspiration in a quite opposite idea. They present a conception of man as a deity - if not entirely God - which is an enormous temptation to Our pride and has almost deadened us. There is alarm over the disappearance of sacred art: what does it matter, if the cinema is taking over from the cathedrals! I will go further: what makes Catholicism so great is its extreme openness, its power infinitely to enrich itself. It is no ivycovered temple, but an edifice whose stones increase with every century that goes by, while its unity remains unaltered. And not only through its dogmas (I'm thinking of the recently proclaimed dogma of the Assumption), but through its capacity to renew itself in life and in art, it has more and more contempt for the flimsy support of natural philosophy. By the grace of its music perhaps a Bach mass can lead us closer to God than can the majesty of the cathedrals. Is it the task of the cinema to bring into art a notion whose great riches the whole of human genius had not yet known how to uncover: the notion of the miracle?