Vittorio De Sica’s final film as director is a peculiarly diffident affair. De Sica, best known to popular audiences as a comedic star akin to an Italian Cary Grant, had of course surprisingly established himself at the head of the pack amongst the Italian neo-realists with films like The Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1953). After Two Women (1961) De Sica’s stature began to decline. Most of the directors who had exemplified the Neo-Realist creed had by this time seen dips and crests in their careers and had made various settlements with more commercial cinema. Old comrade and rival Luchino Visconti was on a roll through the ‘60s, whilst Roberto Rossellini was in a kind of exile, immersed in productions for French TV that only emerged later as classics. Tyros like Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Pier Paolo Pasolini had become the hip, fearsome new voices of Italian film. De Sica, with his preference for raw humanistic values and personal drama, over aesthetic questions and ongoing provocation, as well as his ongoing status as a film star, seemed to make him the most amenable of the Neo-Realists for a move into a more mainstream film world, which some critics suggested he hinted at with the magic-realist tendencies of his Cannes prize-winning Miracle in Milan (1951), and had become undeniable with the success of the sexy portmanteau comedy Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963). De Sica kept making films at a steady rate, but many were lightweight or disappeared from attention, whilst his forays into broadening the audience for his brand were mixed, like the uneven but occasionally brilliant self-satire After the Fox (1966), and the notorious clunky romantic weepy A Place for Lovers (1968). He resurged in critical estimation with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971), but his advancing age and frail health undoubtedly informed the subject of The Voyage, an adaptation of a Luigi Pirandello novel, completed the year of his death.
The Voyage tries to sustain a tone of elegy and grace-note contemplation of inevitable change and mortality, with its theme of coming to terms with the imminence of death and trying to live courageously anyway. But the resulting film feels like a compromise, trying to balance the kind of high-class, melancholic look back to a time of changing mores and the hazy folk-memory of history wielded in Finzi-Continis, and with hints of competition with Visconti’s lucid melding of melodrama and Neo-Realist approaches in films like Senso (1954) and The Leopard (1962), whilst essentially recycling the essential romantic drama trope of A Place for Lovers, where a man falls in love with a beautiful but dying woman. De Sica’s previous work, A Brief Vacation (1973), had also explored the fatalistic bravery engendered by illness, in working class characters there, whilst The Voyage is the tale of a woman, Adriana de Mauro (Sophia Loren), who moves up and down on the social ladder. The daughter of a soldier who was beloved of his aristocratic commander, at the outset she’s working as a seamstress with her mother (Barbara Pilavin) in a small flat in Palermo. Fate comes knocking in the form of the deceased commander’s son, Cesare Braggi (Richard Burton), whom she’s had a crush on since childhood, but in a cruel twist, the dead overlord’s will insists that Cesare’s younger brother Antonio (Ian Bannen) marry Adriana: Cesare demurs from any declarations that might forestall this, and Adriana, in spite of vowing not to go through with the union, nonetheless succumbs to the siren call of affluence.
The sense of human frailty in diastolic relation to its resilience was a constant De Sica theme. In adapting Pirandello, a writer defined by disillusionment and irony and a wry sense of the disparity between roles – both social and theatrical – and individuals, De Sica seems out of his zone, however. Whereas with 1900 (1976) Bernardo Bertolucci would labour excessively to chart an historical course via its main characters’ perspectives, De Sica, who managed the same thing so beautifully in Two Women, doesn’t seem able to make necessary connections between the immediate human drama and the end of an era beyond obvious statements: Antonio dies learning how to drive a car and Adriana expires as the First World War is declared. De Sica seems to be evoking the world of his childhood here, except from the perspective of the opposite end of town to the one he grew up in. Adriana marries Antonio, and finds that she, her husband, and Cesare are all somewhat befuddled by their adherence to convention. Burton, oddly cast as a Sicilian playboy nobleman, nonetheless sells his role in the early moment in which he resists acknowledging Adriana’s imploring to recognise she’d rather marry him: “I don’t – I don’t understand – I don’t – I don’t understand," he stammers in agitated obfuscation before hurrying out: it's a moment of vulnerability that feels rare for Burton. Antonio marries Adriana without complaint, and indeed he has nothing to complain about, in obedience to his father’s last wishes, but needs coaching from Cesare in how to express actual pleasure. Cesare plays man of the world, with his mistress and peripatetic habits, but he only smoulders against propriety rather the properly rebels against it.
The problem with The Voyage is that whilst it offers building blocks for a perfervid romantic tragedy, it never seems to add up to anything. De Sica was working here for Loren’s husband Carlo Ponti, and the heavy hand of class lies upon the whole affair. The crucial romance of Cesare and Adriana after Antonio’s death and flaring just when they learn Adriana has a mortal heart ailment doesn’t really begin until the last twenty minutes. But everything before it feels like mere set-up: there’s too little penetration into Cesare, Adriana, and Antonio’s headspaces to give them immediacy. There’s a sophomoric quality to the film’s essential irony, in how Antonio dies right after shouting “I am a happy man!” at Cesare’s behest, and later Adriana also expires after Cesare encourages her to seize the day, cutting both lives off at the cusp of fulfilment, as if the point of the film is to say, in extremely elegant terms, life’s a bitch and then you die. Of course, this isn’t actually the thesis here, being more of one about the necessity of bravery to throw off the past and embrace immediacy, but the film never quite finds the focus to realise this. Orson Welles’ influence is discernible: in exploring like The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) the end of a genteel era, De Sica offers up a kind of roving Greek chorus of lower class people spying on the will reading of the Braggis and cheekily meditating on their later predicaments, anticipating the collapse of the upper class and the day of the scurrying proletariat who leave no room for illusions. The Voyage however never comes close to gaining the force of Ambersons, because it feels like all the scenes crucial to the story were included in the final cut, but not the sort of rich or observational incidental material that might have given it the body it lacks.
Burton and Loren, who the same year also appeared in a TV remake of Brief Encounter, don’t really have much chemistry, and their miscasting in roles that suppress their natural charisma doesn’t help. The hope that casting such grade-A movie stars might give reticent Cesare and repressed Adriana a secret lode of passion to be tapped was justifiable, but came to little. Burton, though subtler in his performance here than usual at this point in his career, looks and sounds clapped-out, and Loren seems too old for her role. The English cut sports an actor who patently isn’t Bannen dubbing in his dialogue, whilst Burton and Loren’s inimitable strains are heard. One lengthy late sequence sees Cesare and Adriana trying to enjoy the highlife, watching a Can-Can kickrow, a sight that reduces the decorous Adriana to utter hilarity: here De Sica does subtly construct a sense of frenetically pointless activity and immobile spectacle, bawdy show turning into try-hard simulacrum of real sensuality, generating the sense of last moments being wasted even as they’re being expended on what passes for living. The eponymous voyage is the one Cesare takes Adriana on once he plies her out of the palace to see doctors to diagnose her ailments and possible future, and of course this idea takes on metaphysical echoes as a voyage of life that inevitably bends back towards the same truths. The photography, by Ennio Guarnieri, has that common quality of a lot of ‘70s European art cinema and already well-worked by Finzi-Continis, slightly smudged light effects redolent of hazy remembrance and muted colour, paying off in one eye-catching sequence in which Cesare tries to talk Adriana out of her isolation as she enjoys sunlight on a terrace where fresh bright laundry flaps, her black widow’s reed-clad form a blight behind the fiery white cloth, visually encapsulating her subservience to a life-killing edict. Antonio’s death, in his car which runs off a vertiginous road, is filmed in slow motion, the explosion of his car, like the finale of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) if not as lingeringly or effectively, turned into an ontological statement. Otherwise the film settles for offering one well-decorated room after another.
Which is not to suggest this is mere nostalgic decor porn, although it comes close: more that De Sica seems to be trying evoke the simultaneously ravishing but also suffocating qualities of the belle epoque’s closing years, all about to be swept away by apocalyptic storms, and along with it the tired morality and hierarchical assumptions Cesare and Adriana find themselves subject to and half-heartedly rebel against. De Sica suggests that great wealth can be as great a block against experience and freedom as great poverty. The privilege of the Braggis, encapsulated in their palace outside Palermo, acts like a trap, reducing Antonio to an alienated, middle-aged but still boyish cipher and Cesare to a sensual but essentially aimless being, whilst Adriana adopts the palace like a crayfish moving into another, bigger shell for protection, within which she subsists after Antonio’s death, neither quite alive nor dead, but held in stasis according to convention. The script, tellingly not penned by De Sica’s usual collaborator Cesare Zavattini, states rather than animates its ideas, and De Sica’s matter-of-fact approach doesn’t evoke the crucial frustration except in certain occasional glimpses. The finale does finally see De Sica deliver a memorable sequence, as he intercuts between Neapolitans receiving the news of the war’s declaration, Cesare desperately arguing with Adriana’s mother that they will be getting married against all protocol over the phone, and Adriana suffering a fatal heart attack, destroyed by anxiety caused by the hope of final fulfilment clashing with fear of the known, a storm of crumbling flesh, securities, and values. Adriana’s final, dumbstruck death mask is the image of an expired era, and De Sica's last image confronts his own impending mortality in the raw.