previous chapter
24— Vanina Vanini (1961)
next chapter

Vanina Vanini

Once again, Rossellini was unable to extend his string of successes, and his next venture, Vanina Vanini (1961), was another box-office disaster. What is especially interesting about this film, though, is the particular way it has been treated by the critics; in the twenty-five years since its initial release, it has been praised and reviled in equally strong terms. It seems to have been, and to be, a matter not of simply liking the film or disliking it, but of elevating it into a masterpiece or consigning it to the realm of the unspeakable. Furthermore, even the mundane particularities of production have been rife with controversy, and both the director and the principal screenwriters have disowned the picture, though for completely different reasons.

The basic story, characters, and even much of the dialogue are taken from a story of the same name by Stendhal, part of his Chroniques italiennes (1829). Set in early nineteenth-century Rome, it concerns a young princess named Vanina Vanini whose father, Asdrubale Vanini, is an important member of the papal court. A revolutionary named Pietro Missirilli, bent on overthrowing the Pope's temporal power in the name of a free Italy, has been captured while in Rome to assassinate a papal spy who has infiltrated the carbonari , as the members of his sect are called. Pietro escapes but is wounded in the process, and because Prince Asdrubale's mistress, who met Missirilli on the coach to Rome, may be compromised if he is discovered, the prince takes him to his own palace to recuperate. There he is discovered by Vanina, and they fall passionately in love. As the weeks pass, their love becomes physically and emotionally all-consuming, but both are troubled—she by religious scruples, he by his apparent seduction away from his revolutionary cause. In a desperate attempt to keep Pietro, she betrays


his group to the papal authorities. Since Pietro is the only one who has not been captured, however, he turns himself in to avoid the suspicion of betrayal. In prison, Vanina reveals to him what she has done; he utterly rejects her, beating her with the very chains that bind him. At the end of the film, they seem to achieve a peace of sorts—he by climbing the gallows, she by fleeing to the solace of a convent.

Unfortunately, the version of the film currently in circulation is, in important ways, not Rossellini's. Jean-André Fieschi has called it "a mutilated masterpiece, like the Victory of Samothrace," and Rossellini himself has told a sad story of checking during postproduction with the color lab responsible for putting the film together. When he informed the lab personnel that they had mistakenly put the opening credits on the fourth reel rather than the first, they replied that they were only doing what they had been told.[1]

The villain of the piece is the producer Morris Ergas, whose list of misdeeds is long. First, he forced the film's star, Sandra Milo, allegedly his mistress at the time, on a reluctant Rossellini. Years later the director defended his acquiescence in this imposition by maintaining that for him the important thing was to get the film done. Trying his best to salvage the character, Rossellini then dubbed Milo's voice, which he found "breathy" and hard to understand, with the voice of another actress, Andreina Pagnani. (Given the American obsession with authenticity and "naturalness," this might seem to be the kind of thing that would be done to Rossellini rather than by him, but in fact, the practice was not at all uncommon in Italian cinema of the period, especially after the heyday of neorealism. Since all voices are "dubbed" in a studio after the actual filming itself, it is obviously only a short step to dubbing with a different voice to achieve the strongest performance possible.) But even here Rossellini was frustrated, because Ergas had Milo do her own dubbing, once again behind the director's back, ostensibly to make her eligible for the best actress award at the Venice film festival, since by the rules, actresses whose voices had been dubbed by others were not eligible. Pio Baldelli also reports (without giving a source) that a scene was added during the sixth reel as well—without Rossellini's knowledge—to give Milo more play.[2]

Other changes were even more serious. Thus, the role of the Countess Vitelleschi, Prince Vanini's mistress (played by Martine Carol) seems, in the extant version, inconsistent and poorly developed; according to Rossellini, it was her part that suffered the most from Ergas' behind-the-scenes editing. Baldelli claims, for example, that a full fifteen minutes was cut from her opening carriage scene with Pietro Missirilli, footage that Rossellini had included to sketch in the history and mores of the period but that apparently was cut because it did not contain any "action." Fieschi, writing in Cahiers du cinéma , says that an early scene in which Pietro is chased across the top of the castello of San Nicola was also cut, a decision that, given the producer's apparent commercial priorities, seems baffling.[3]

The opening of the film at the Venice film festival, which Rossellini tried to prevent, was an utter disaster. Italian critics loathed it. Gian Maria Guglielmino, for example, writing in the Gazzetta del Popolo , called it "a really bad film: decidedly, incredibly, bad." For him, the battle of words between the producer and


History and sex: Vanina Vanini (Sandra Milo) begs the forgiveness of her
lover Pietro (Laurent Terzieff) in  Vanina Vanini  (1961).


the director was a mere smoke screen, for it was obvious that both of them were trying to shirk the responsibility for this horrible film. He also insisted that, even with the missing footage, the film could not have been redeemed.[4] The film's ill luck did not stop at Venice, either, for according to Fieschi, it was badly distributed in France, was poorly dubbed, and was not even released in a subtitled version (which is true for only the most commercial of film releases in that country).[5] It was not shown in the United States until the distribution rights were purchased by Corinth Films in 1979.

Rossellini also ran into trouble on his left flank, as it were, for the two principal screenwriters (as listed in the credits), Antonello Trombadori and Franco Solinas, disclaimed responsibility for the final version of the film. A few cynical commentators have suggested that they, too, were merely trying to abandon a sinking ship, but on the surface, at least, their response seems more ideologically motivated. Both were members of the Communist party, and they seem to have been responsible for whatever remains in the final script of contemporary political criticism.[6] They were particularly bothered, as might be expected, by Rossellini's changes concerning religion. Thus, they objected to the director's addition of Vanina's sexually troubled confessor and the placement of the priest "at the center of the film" (an exaggeration), giving "the story an ideological orientation which is foreign to us." Similarly, they complained about Rossellini's major departures from his source material in portraying Vanina as tormented by her religious convictions and in ending the film with her entering a convent.[7]

One of their more interesting complaints is that Rossellini changed the scene of the meeting of the carbonari from the "dramatic" mode, to one stressing it as "ritual." For us this indicates that even in this mutilated, operatic, enormously melodramatic and sentimentalized film, Rossellini's informational, antinarrative impulse is still alive. Thus, we are given a full treatment of the freemason's meeting (which is not described in Stendhal), not because it advances the narrative line (it does not), but because it is, again, something factual of the period that seems worth knowing for its own sake. Also evident is Rossellini's continual fascination with his native city: the film is marked with many shots of its towers, a papal parade, and the ever-present, overarching symbol of the city, the dome of Saint Peter's. Further, in his desire to evoke a specific time and place, he has freely availed himself of the work of the early-nineteenth-century Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli for various anecdotes concerning the social life of the city, and has obviously gone back to Piranesi for many of his opening visual images. In fact, while the main story lines have been taken from Stendhal's story "Vanina Vanini," Rossellini has also borrowed liberally from the French writer's other works set in the same location, such as Les Promenades dans Rome, Napoli Roma Firenze , and, especially for the colloquy at the ball between the homosexual and the German ambassador, the essay De l'Amour . Guarner reports that one of the early titles the director considered was the kind of inclusive, documentary-flavored one that was in fact the singular form of the one chosen by Stendhal, Chronique italienne . Like Stendhal, in other words, but even more strongly, Rossellini wanted to portray a place and an age, not just tell a story.[8] However, if we can trust the director's complaints in this regard, most of the Rossellini documentation ended up on the cutting-room floor, for it


is, as usual, precisely this kind of "slow" material, not directly related to the advancement of the narrative, that can seem expendable to a more commercial mind. Nevertheless, some of Rossellini's "digressions" have remained—notably, the colloquy on love and the Freemason ceremony, referred to above—moments that, as J. Hoberman has approvingly pointed out in the Village Voice , "account for the film's unconventional narrative flow—alternately elliptical and expansive."[9]

It is clear that the desire to approach the past and dramatize its ideas ("I made the film as a work of historical research," Rossellini said in 1972) is here just as strong as it was in Viva l'Italia! , but the film's simultaneous status as romantic costume drama works against the fulfillment of that desire. History is seen only in terms of its effects on specific individuals, and their overheated passions obscure Rossellini's historical investigation, which is centered on the Church's role as temporal ruler. Again, the director has sidestepped questions of representation by not attempting to recreate history itself; Vanina Vanini does not pretend to be an accurate portrayal of Rome in the 1820s, but offers itself rather as an adaptation of Stendhal's fictional rendering of that period. Appropriately, then, a great deal of the film's dialogue is taken verbatim from Stendhal's story.

As costume drama, the film is also intensely self-aware, in the manner of Visconti's Senso , with which it is often compared. Both films stress their operatic mode, primarily through mannered acting, overblown musical scores, and non-naturalistic lighting and sets (especially in night scenes). Early in Vanina Vanini , for example, we find Pietro looking for his confederate in Rome while trying to avoid the police. He ducks into a brothel, and as he runs quickly through its rooms, the colors change blatantly, and inexplicably, from yellow to green to red to blue. Similarly, Rossellini's refusal of banal over-the-shoulder and reaction shots in favor of the two-shot inevitably makes the entire film seem staged.[10] Perhaps most obvious in this regard is the use of the Pancinor, Rossellini's director-controlled zoom mechanism, for it is in this film that the device reaches its apotheosis of lyric expressivity. The nervous zoom so constantly reframes, moving dramatically from long exterior shots to intimate two-shots without cutting, that the spectator can hardly fail to notice the movement itself. Space becomes amorphous, and the least bit of looseness in the frame is relentlessly suppressed. These movements are also often gracefully choreographed with crane shots, somehow perfectly appropriate in a film in which the morality of the waltz is discussed. (This combination of camera and zoom movement, which we saw the hesitant beginnings of in the second half of Era notte a Roma , is also used to discover various groups discussing politics at the papal court; this movement will become a standard expository device in Rossellini's later didactic films.) The zoom can also sometimes carry an emotional charge, as when Vanina declares her love for Pietro and the camera zooms in as though to pin and trap him, foreshadowing what the emotional effect of this love affair will be. At other times, such as the proclamation scene, when harsh punishments are announced for antipapal activities, the zoom becomes aligned with the government forces as the agent of an implacably active search as it restlessly scans the crowd.

Color is also important to a film as melodramatic and as stylized as this, and


the Eastmancolor of the prints in circulation in the United States is almost as bright and fresh as the best Technicolor prints of older films. The overall effect in many of the scenes suggests the warmth of an old master oil painting. The colors become especially effective in the scenes in Vanina's room before she falls in love, with their soft combination of light pastels, beige, and off-white. The strongly stated colors of the rest of the film are also clearly meant to be taken in a structural or symbolic sense, in general working expressionistically to suggest emotional states and basic oppositions, as when Vanina, all in black, stands between the two cardinals, all in red, as she pleads for Pietro's pardon.[11]

Despite the commercialism of the film, the code of realism is again subverted by Rossellini's refusal to underline traditional dramatic "high points." Thus, the action is so leveled that the murders are very quickly done, with no emotional buildup at all, like the shootings in Paisan . Similarly, Vanina's decision to inform on Pietro's coconspirators is taken in a moment and merges imperceptibly with the putting on of her gloves. The dedramatization of these moments is particularly striking in the context of the film's self-consciously emotional content. In this way, it matches Stendhal's presentation of the same subject matter, for the mode of his presentation is, as well, severely understated. Jean-André Fieschi is right, in this regard, to insist that "the visual violence of the film, the sudden character of the most important acts, is an exact equivalent of the sharp, abrupt, inexorable side of [Stendhal's] short story."[12]

Even more complicated is our relation to the characters. Once again, Rossellini offers us an examination of male-female relations, and again, as in the Bergman-era films, we are kept from siding with either the man or the woman. The ambivalent misogynism of the earlier films also reappears. The religious torment that Vanina undergoes (in a sense, simply an extended, more violent version of what Karin experiences at the very end of Stromboli ) was Rossellini's invention; not a trace of it exists in Stendhal's text. In other words, Rossellini again chooses to inflict emotional punishment on his female lead, but this punishment also functions, once again, to make Vanina a real character of equal weight with the male protagonist, and as Hoberman claims, Vanina's "romantic Catholicism is taken as seriously as Pietro's revolutionary ardor."[13] In Stendhal's version, Vanina is selfish and vain, in a very uncomplicated way, and once Pietro rejects her, she simply goes off and marries the most eligible bachelor of the papal court, who has been pursuing her from the beginning.[14] Thus, if Rossellini punishes the woman, he at least takes her seriously as an ethical being whose moral conflicts are as significant as any man's. There is also a level, as we saw with Carmela and Harriet in Paisan , on which Rossellini appreciates the primitiveness of her emotions.[15] And in his portrayal of Prince Asdrubale (played by Paolo Stoppa, the Bixio of Viva l'Italia! ), who speaks to his mistress in exactly the same childish terms he uses with his daughter, the director clearly suggests that this society's treatment of women as playthings is one more sign of its corruption.[16]

The parity of the male and female figures is also made clear in sexual terms: both are equally complicitous and equally obsessed. Rossellini is masterful at suggesting the deeply sexual without having to show the least bit of explicit lovemaking. Other filmmakers, for all the steaminess of their character's physi-


cal encounters, often seem unable to capture the easy slide of sex toward obsession, the deepest threat to individual consciousness. Rossellini's characters insist upon their dying "love" for one another, but we sense that what is really at stake is sex. They initially find a freedom of sorts in their total abandonment to the flesh, but it soon enough becomes their prison; when Pietro beats Vanina at the end of the film for betraying his friends, it is ironic that only when his chains have finally become physically manifest does he become free. (It is also significant that this final meeting takes place in the chapel of the prison. There, the lovers are surrounded by objects of devotion, one last palpable sign of the Church's pressure, in different modes, on both of them.)

Earlier, when Pietro wants to leave because he feels guilty for abandoning his fellows, Vanina begs him to stay by saying that if she were a peasant girl, he would pay her, so he should pay her with three days of his time. In this, she reminds us of the prostitutes encountered early in the film by Pietro and the man he will kill—the joining of sex and money clearly manifesting the fleshly corruption that pervades papal Rome, which will come to a head in the ball scene and in Pietro and Vanina's destructive love. Pietro's internal conflict is also represented visually: when he is plotting against the pope, he stands boldly upright, but when he accompanies Vanina back to her bedroom in the castle, he cravenly slinks through the courtyard, obviously afraid. The mise-en-scène and the camera work create the same effect: the interior scenes, so oppressively claustrophobic, provide an exact equivalent for the spectator of the character's inner states, and our own restlessness matches theirs. After one enormously long scene in the bedroom, for example, we and Pietro are longing for the freedom of the outside; but Pietro decides to stay, there is a cut, and—we are still in the bedroom, just as Pietro is. At another point, the lovers seem utterly sick of one another's presence, and only their obsession keeps them together for "one more night" so that Vanina can inform on Pietro's friends. The deed done, Rossellini brilliantly conveys, through temps mort , their emotional lassitude and the fact that they have totally worn each other out. Their problem is the very opposite of Katherine and Alexander, the emotionless British couple of Voyage to Italy , for their overinvestment in the life of the flesh makes them just as unhappy as the Joyces' overinvestment in the opposite direction.

Rossellini continues his exploration of sexual obsession in the figure of the priest who is Vanina's confessor. He is obviously physically attracted to Vanina, but having renounced the pleasures of the flesh, he must struggle mightily to control himself. Rossellini has invented an extraordinary scene between him and Vanina in which raw sex is in the air, though its expression is disguised by the priest's invocation of renunciation and self-control. In this way, it is reminiscent of the masterful scene between the priest and Karin in Stromboli , though there, of course, it was the woman who was the sexual predator. The scene in Vanina Vanini is also marked by an exceptionally nervous and jerky use of the zoom, which calls attention to itself and seems perfectly appropriate to the scene's emotional charge. (Another scene cut by the producer before release, mentioned by Fieschi, apparently showed the priest flagellating himself before a statue of the Virgin.) Later, when the priest has been captured by the carbonari , he feverishly maintains that his mission in life is to free people from the flesh.


In a quick but eloquent gesture, his captor exclaims, "Bella libertà!" ("Some freedom!"). The film seems to suggest that one must find the proper balance between the flesh and the spirit, between Pietro and Vanina, on the one hand, and Katherine and Alex Joyce, on the other: a classical ideal that accords perfectly with Rossellini's increasing interest in the "whole person" in whom reason reigns. As Dante wanted us to learn from Paolo and Francesca, sexuality without the restraint of reason is debilitating and leads inevitably to the loss of individual freedom.

The priest serves a synecdochic function as well, for the entire society seems built on the repression or disguised expression of sexuality. He also serves Rossellini more directly as a diversionary displacement, for, in Stendhal's story, it is instead the cardinal, the principal candidate to become pope, whose nephew Vanina ends up marrying, who has "the taste . . . for beautiful women" (p. 333). In the film Vanina goes to beg forgiveness for her lover, and is met by two cardinals; in the story she never says that it is her lover she wants to free, and the encounter takes place alone with the cardinal in his bedroom. This whole scene in the story is actually quite strangely overdetermined, and flaunts an erotic resonance that nearly destroys the literal level.[17] None of this, of course, remains in the film, and it is obvious that one of the reasons for inventing Vanina's chaplain was to allow Rossellini the possibility of maintaining Stendhal's link between sexuality and the Church without offending the Vatican.

The two are also linked in Vanina's moral struggle: her sexual guilt is treated seriously and in no way, in 1961, considered old-fashioned. Nor does Rossellini think the issue can be rationally explained away as merely an example of the sexual repression inherent in Catholic moral teaching. Vanina's oscillation between guilt and sensual relapse is, in fact, scarcely less convincing than Stephen's in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man . The spiritual striving that has marked many of Rossellini's films is simply seen here in its most institutional form. What counts for him here and elsewhere, however, is not the Catholic church per se, but the claims of the spiritual and the moral realm on our consciousness. Thus, Vanina's flight to the convent at the end of the film is only another version of the religious crisis endings of Stromboli, Voyage to Italy , and The Miracle , none of which are specifically Catholic. (The last film, in fact, clearly suggested the failure of organized religion to answer human spiritual needs.) Similarly, Vanina's impassioned speech to the cardinal in favor of love over religious objections links her with the misunderstood Irene of Europa '51; both insist that they are merely taking the Church's teaching about love seriously. The Church as institution is, once again, in conflict with the Church as repository of moral truth.

On another level, however—and this is where the film is perhaps most interesting—the Catholic church is important, for it is, after all, the dominant institution at the particular time and place that the film treats. What Rossellini manages to catch so well in Vanina Vanina , which is perhaps really understandable only to another Italian, is the peculiar position of the Church in Italian history as supreme in both the spiritual and the temporal worlds. Thus, if Stendhal focuses on the Church as a social and historical entity, with hardly a nod to its function as spiritual presence, we can see that Rossellini's addition of this di-


mension constitutes, in a sense, a legitimate "Italianizing" of the French writer's material.

The film ends as both characters "close" their lives—Pietro on a scaffold, Vanina in a convent. At the end of each short sequence, first Pietro and then Vanina boldly look out of the frame in identical, childlike gestures. Breaking the realistic frame of the story, they seem to be sharing one last farewell, or perhaps, like Tristan and Isolde, uniting beyond the confines of the social and physical world, where their love has been impossible. They attempt to transcend the limits of the narrative that has held them captive by breaking the bounds of cinema itself. In a very short while, Rossellini will attempt the same desperate gesture.


previous chapter
24— Vanina Vanini (1961)
next chapter