Voyage to Italy, Before Midnight, and the movie theater as sanctuary

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George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman in Voyage to Italy
  • George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman in Voyage to Italy
When the Music Box Theatre presented its 70-millimeter series a few months ago, I was most impressed with those movies that used the large-scale format for metaphysical reasons. "The high-resolution film renders things with such specificity that even minute details appear to have been prearranged," I wrote, going on to say that The Master, 2001, and Playtime took advantage of this quality to "ponder whether everything may be part of some mysterious cosmic order." In other words, these movies are about that which is bigger than you; big-screen projection is essential to what they're saying.

I could say the same thing about Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, which is screening this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center in a new DCP restoration. The movie culminates with something like a miracle, when an unhappy married couple who have just decided to divorce suddenly rediscover their need for one another. Little about their behavior before this suggests that the movie would end this way; even when they fight, they remain well-spoken and reserved. Rossellini prefigures the extraordinary conclusion with images of the relics of Naples and the ruins of Pompeii—products of civilization that bind people to one another and endure through the ages. Why should love, another triumph of humankind, be any different? This isn't a rational argument, but admirers of Voyage to Italy find it persuasive all the same. As André Bazin wrote of Rossellini's Europa '51, "How could we remain insensitive to the intensity of a mise-en-scène in which the universe seems to be organized along spiritual lines of force, to the point that it sets them off as manifestly as iron filings in a magnetic field?"

In the same essay, Bazin argued that "because Rossellini is a true director, the form of his film does not consist in the ornamentation of its script; its form is supplied by its very substance." It's worth noting that when Bazin wrote these lines in 1953, the "substance" of cinema was more uniform than it is now. People saw all movies in public—never at home or on their laps—and typically on screens that were larger than them. For Bazin, these conditions helped to make cinema an ideal medium for portraying religious experience; and Rossellini, more than nearly any other filmmaker, made this connection between cinema and religiosity the foundation of his art.

It's also worth noting that going to the movies has much in common with attending a religious service. The similarities are so obvious that I wonder if people took them for granted in the days before home viewing; Bazin doesn't even touch on them in his 1951 essay "Cinema and Theology." This might explain why the religious aspects of Italy, Europa, or Stromboli (which is also screening at the Siskel this week) weren't universally recognized when the films were first released. Perhaps they seem more pronounced today, when movies designed for the big screen represent only one category of moving images among many.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
  • Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
By coincidence, the restored DCP of Voyage to Italy opened in Chicago on the same day as Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, which explicitly references the earlier film and shares with it a similar narrative structure. There's nothing about the content of Linklater's film that I'd deem religious—its married couple remains rational when they reconcile and impassioned when they argue—yet it preserves numerous qualities that Bazin identified as part of a religious style. As in its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Linklater honors the mystery of real life in Midnight through his use of long takes and real locations (including some ancient relics) and in compositions that require the viewer to engage simultaneously with multiple autonomous characters. (All three films maintain a careful balance between spontaneity and dramatic artifice, which is just as important to Bazin's concept of cinematic realism.) Linklater channels that unseen force that Bazin considered the heart of Rossellini's film. Is a healthy marriage between two independent-minded equals a miracle in its own right? Would watching either Voyage to Italy or Before Midnight in private be tantamount to singing a chorale to yourself?

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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