"Journey to Italy"
Roberto Rossellini had more than made a name for himself with the Neorealist trilogy of Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948), all masterful works of post-war cinema, but his career began to take a notable shift in the decade that followed. Aside from taking new narrative and stylistic approaches, beginning with Stromboli in 1950 Rossellini also had a new leading lady, in real life and in his movies – Ingrid Bergman – and neither he nor she, nor their filmmaking career, would ever be the same.
Bergman was a great admirer of Rossellini’s work to this point. She expressed a desire to work with him, which she would first do in the 1950 production noted above. But a more than professional relationship developed and the two fell in love. Both were already married, and she became pregnant and decided to stay in Italy. This did not sit well with self-appointed moral superiors in America. She was, after all, the seemingly wholesome and innocent Oscar-winning star of Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944), Spellbound (1945) The Bell's of St. Mary's (1945) and Joan of Arc (1948). As the outrage spread amongst various religious and social institutions condemning their relationship, they carried on, and while their marriage didn’t last in the end, it did produce (along with daughter and future star Isabella Rossellini) some extraordinary films, including Europa ’51 (1952), Fear (1954) and the film discussed here, Journey to Italy (1954).
With these films, Rossellini was starting to distance himself markedly from his Neorealist roots, occasionally to the surprised disappointment of critics. Journey to Italy was one of the first hints at the sort of modern cinema that was to develop even further as the decade went on. While later films by fellow countrymen Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni would soon be greeted as movies ushering in a whole new era of motion picture art, Journey to Italy was among the initial films to explore relationships and individual psychology in complex ways, with a more restrained and ambiguous presentation.
In an occasionally stolid yet at times deeply affecting fashion, the film follows husband and wife Alex and Katherine Joyce (George Sanders and Bergman) as they travel to Naples in order to arrange the outcome of a deceased relative’s villa. That goal has little to do with the plot of the film, however. Instead, we are more focused on the gradual disintegration and evolution of their marriage. Their animosity toward each other becomes clear early on, and it fluctuates as the picture progresses from subtle jabs at one another to all-out aggression. They go their separate ways at times, finding respite in solitude or in the company of others, but though they decide a divorce is the best course of action one gets the sense that they are not fully committed, that perhaps there is more to their marriage, and their arguments, than what’s shown on the surface. We see this is indeed the case near the end of the film, when two fascinating scenes test their feelings for each other. By being in these two particular places at the specific times they are, they are confronted by life and death in exceptional ways, and their characters and their ideas and plans are altered.
What places Journey to Italy into the “art film” or “modern” category is the way in which Rossellini presents the drama. Everything is extremely intimate. We are with these two at their most volatile and vulnerable. But at the same time, we’re not granted access to their innermost thought processes. Their feelings and subsequent actions are not always clear or fully explicated. We’re fascinated by Alex and Katherine, and we’re absorbed in their relationship, but we’re kept at a distance. In a way, while Journey to Italy takes place in what seems like a whole other world than that in Rossellini’s Neorealist works, it’s not totally unlike the objective stance taken in those war-time films. In fact, it may be even less manipulative and controlled (neither method is necessarily bad though). And in an approach similar to Antonioni’s so-called “Trilogy of Alienation” (L'avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L'eclisse (1962)) and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Journey to Italy also comes across as being as much about contemporary society, culture and relationships, and the larger strains that affect all three, as it is about specific individuals.
Rossellini’s career would continue to shift in style and substance; he would return to war themes and settings, he made a docudrama in India, and later he did some extraordinary historically-based television projects. Bergman, who would also work with other international greats like Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman, was eventually welcomed back into the Hollywood and American community (her first film back in the US was Anastasia in 1956 and she won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance).
For me personally, Journey to Italy was one of 9 films I had the pleasant opportunity to watch at the recent Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. While this included some great features (all of which I’ll be writing about over the next couple weeks), I find that I keep thinking about Rossellini’s film more than others. It wasn’t the best movie I saw at the festival, and it wasn’t the first time I saw it, but something about it has stayed with me, and I’m eager to see it again already. It’s a testament to the way in which Rossellini carefully crafts the film - one may not become immediately enraptured by the picture, given its pace, tone and lack of “action,” but the impact grows progressively and profoundly.