As a precursor of sorts to the ennui films of Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy is consequently a departure from his neorealist tendencies. There are hints of a post-war Italy, but mostly Rossellini is concerned with the clash between the country's entire, vivid history and the striking banality of modernity. There's a couple, Katherine (Ingrid Bergman, whose star presence is another indication of Rossellini abandoning neorealism) and Alex (George Sanders), who are going to Italy to sell a villa they own (they currently live in England). It doesn't take long for us to realize that their marriage is crumbling. At first there are subtle hints, as when Katherine suggests they try to meet some people for dinner, at which Alex asks why his presence alone isn'tgood enough for her. Katherine later begins to speak of an old friend who wrote poetry for her, and when she begins to recite it to Alex, it's clear she's using these words as verbal knives.
Much of the remainder of the film consists of Katherine and Alex pursing their various activities while waiting for the sale. Katherine visits museums and historical sites, while Alex gets involved with a different woman. When they do happen upon each other, their words are bitter. Alex blames the problems of the marriage entirely on Katherine, while she lambasts him for his unabated pride.
Rossellini paints Italy as a country rife with culture and history, clearly using its richness to emphasize the dead state of both the couple's relationship and their individual souls. There are plenty of early glimpses of Antonioni, particularly in the way Katherine wanders about, often aimlessly, and in the young crowd we see Alex mingling with in a few scenes. But this is also the 1950s rather than the 60s, meaning Rossellini's characters still have an old fashioned way about them. They're a bit older, a bit more intellectual, a little more traditional in their dress. While Antonioni's characters come across as searching and never finding, Katherine at least has certain notions about how things ought to be. She's even clinging to old values, like having a proper household with children (she shudders every time she passes a any carriage on the street).
Voyage to Italy's painful irony is that a glorious city often doesn't amount to much when the people in it are in a state of misery. There's no way for Katherine or Alex to really appreciate the city Rossellini paints so vividly unless they can first come to grips with their fragmented inner worlds. This makes the paradox Rosselini uses to close the picture all the more stunning and beguiling.