Bergman, with George Sanders, in "Voyage to Italy" (1954)
Bergman, with George Sanders, in "Voyage to Italy" (1954)

Neither "Stromboli" nor "Europe '51" qualifies as either Rossellini's or Bergman's finest work. One can sense director and star working through the new forms and goals of "this postwar tragedy," and both films come across as slightly ragged and over-worked. But the key elements of their shared genius are there: Rossellini's neorealist hard edge goading Bergman into fresh registers of independence, Bergman's fantasy of the exile prodding Rossellini toward melodrama. Their films together were not the product of "what Rossellini did for Bergman," to use Richard Brody's tendentious gloss in his introductory essay. What Bergman did for Rossellini in return was of equal importance.

When the two successfully converge -- as in "Voyage to Italy," which deserves consideration along with "Tokyo Story," "The Earrings of Madame de...," "Rear Window," and "Pather Panchali" as a major work of early 1950s world cinema -- the results are luminous.

As the film opens, the hot whistle of a freight train pierces the country air. Katherine (Bergman) and Alex (George Sanders), visiting from England to sell an inherited manse, speed toward Naples in their luxury sedan. In a few moments, cutting between the passing landscape and the quiet interior, Rossellini distills the to-and-fro aesthetic of the trilogy into a poetic vision of horse-drawn cart and modern machine, agricultural poverty and industrialized wealth, heedless husband and discontented wife. "This is the first time that we've been really alone ever since we were married," she comments. "I don't think you're very happy when we're alone."

As slippery as a half-remembered argument, "Voyage to Italy" ingeniously refuses to make the same play for "substance" as its two predecessors, and in doing so achieves a light, uninterrupted command of the medium as impressive as it is rare. Indeed, at times the film seems composed wholly of echoes, reverberations of political and personal history expanding and dissolving like the voice of Katherine's elderly tour guide in the catacombs of the ancient city.

When Rossellini and Bergman return to love among the ruins, this time at an archeological dig near Pompeii, the roughness of the trilogy's experimental bent resolves into a coherent portrait of carrying on in the face of tragedy, and perhaps even beating it back. With Katherine and Alex looking on, the team supervising the site pours plaster and brushes away dirt, uncovering evidence of two bodies caught side by side in that ancient eruption, meeting death together. It sets Katherine crying. "Life is so short," she tells Alex. "That's why one should make the most of it," he replies. Sometimes, when the deluge comes, there is no "after."

"3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman" ($79.96) is available today on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.