Dispatches | June 19, 2008

During an early scene in Roberto Rossellini’s 1953 film Voyage to Italy, Katherine Joyce sits in a canvas sling chair on a sundrenched veranda, eyes obscured behind stylish shades.  Tempestuous Mt. Vesuvius looms in the distance as she tells her remote, work driven English husband Alex (George Sanders) about Charles Lewington, a former lover and poet who died two years before.  The stark, romantic landscape evokes memories of Charles, though Katherine’s sad, rapturous voice suggests that his ghost has been with her all along. 

“We got on terribly well together,” she says and then goes on to describe how the weak, frail man braved a high fever to be with her.  

Her husband, languid and blasé, calls her dead lover a fool.

Rossellini re-tailors Gretta’s mournful reverie from the close of “The Dead” to suit Katherine’s sophistication and Europe’s post-war ennui.  Still there are so many echoes that it stirs one’s passion for Joyce’s classic short story.

Katherine’s confession further irritates the couple’s troubles as does her spiritual pilgrimage to find Charles’ presence in the locations of his poetry.  What if Gretta had had gone back to Galway in search of Michael Furey?

Gabriel transcends his jealousy to empathize with his wife’s loss, while Alex remains resentful and bitter.  In the end, Rossellini reunites his couple during a scene so sudden and abbreviated that the viewer is left nervously off-balance while Joyce’s reader is awed by his hypnotic closing intimation of universal mortality.

Voyage to Italy’s themes, the miscomprehension that can happen between couples and the continued presence of the dead among the living, takes the reader back to the original text as does a much truer adaptation, John Huston’s The Dead (1987).

In the hands of an artist, literary borrowing is an exciting, creative endeavor.  Updike was able to retell Hamlet from Gertrude’s and Claudius’ points of view.  (In Updike’s tale, Hamlet is what my students would call a “girl-pants wearing emo boy” whose pathological recklessness leads to the downfall of the kingdom.).  In Kate Moses’ Wintering , the last days of Sylvia Plath’s life are creatively imagined as she struggled in a cramped flat with two young children, her husband’s betrayal and one of London’s worst winters while writing the poems that would make her name.  And, of course, Jean Rhys 1966 post colonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea tells the tale of the first Mrs. Rochester, a white Creole woman who is transported from the Caribbean to England only to endure an unhappy marriage.