JOURNEY TO ITALY (1954)

  • Director: Roberto Rossellini
  • Writers: Vitaliano Brancati and Roberto Rossellini, based on the novel Duo by Colette
  • Starring: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Maria Mauban, Anna Proclemer, Paul Muller, Leslie Daniels, and Natalia Ray
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#41)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

Journey to Italy was filmed in English on location in Naples and Capri, by an Italian director, with a couple of major international stars as the leads in Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, then was first released as dubbed back into Italian and re-titled Viaggio in Italia. It was not a success at the box office anywhere, and was considered something of a failure. The movie was barely released in the U.S. and U.K., and when it was in a version cut down from the original 105 minutes to 80. But the movie became beloved of the next generation of European art directors, and is today considered a major influence on modernist cinema. I would say that Sight & Sound, perhaps the most prestigious of all the “best film” polls, putting the movie in the top 50 movies ever made on its most recent list is probably something of an exaggeration, but I can certainly see the movie in here that Truffaut and Scorsese have said they see.

This was the third out of five movies in which Roberto Rossellini, one of the guiding lights of the “Italian Neorealist” movement, directed his wife, Ingrid Bergman. Movie watchers at the time seemed to have absolutely no idea what to do with these films. Rossellini’s fans criticized him for breaking with his prior films, gritty dramas that mostly used non-professional actors, to work with a big Hollywood star. Bergman’s fans were confused by her choice to work with (and then marry) an arty director making movies they didn’t particularly want to go see. But with distance, several of these movies are now considered by at least some portions of the movie community to be masterpieces of various stripes.

The story follows an upper-class English couple (Bergman and Sanders) on a trip to Naples and Capri (not originally for vacation, but to deal with some property the husband inherited from his uncle) that, in the words of the Criterion synopsis, “unexpectedly undermines their marriage.” Finally forced to be alone with each other for extended periods, they find that they don’t seem to actually be in love with each other, and fight more and more. She spends her time going to museums and doing other touristy things, which seem to have a deep effect on her, but he shows zero interest in. Both openly express jealousy of the other’s interests in members of the opposite sex. Her jealousy appears to be justified when he openly pursues a local girl (Maria Mauban). Eventually the two of them decided definitively to get a divorce, just before they are taken by their ex-pat host (Leslie Daniels) to see the excavation of two “body casts” created by the volcanic eruption at Pompeii. On the drive back, the two of them are held up by a religious parade, and seem to come to a sort of sudden reconciliation. “Tell me you love me!” she tearfully insists. “If I do, do you promise not take advantage of me?” he replies. The camera cranes up over the parade and the movie ends.

Though it the movie feels closer to your basic Hollywood melodrama in style than to Rossellini’s neorealist roots, he still refrains from any showy camerawork or music stings. Yet he somehow manages to make Bergman’s character’s visit to the art museum in Naples into the most interesting scene of a person visiting a museum and looking at a bunch of statues in the history of the movies. We feel her connection to these things, how they touch something deep inside of her. There’s one hot where she looks up at a statue and the camera does a quick zoom in on its face, telling us she’s almost startled by it. In another shot, Rossellini pulls the camera around Bergman as she brings her face close to that of a sculpture, emphasizing their connection.

What I think the later modernists responded to in Journey to Italy is the way it plays less as a plot and more as a gradual breakdown into emotional honesty. Shorn of their usual context, finding themselves on their own in a foreign country, Bergman and Sanders find themselves freed to be more honest with each other, for better or worse. The emotional realism reaches points that, for me, are a bit hard to watch. The film nails the particular way that marital spats can spiral out of control before one or both of the parties’ even realizes what’s going on. Bergman’s character, in particular, frequently finds herself defending herself from her husband’s verbal attacks, then later regretting the things she said in her own defense.

Perhaps more importantly, there are themes that the movie never quite spells out regarding how the realization and fear of death on the part of Bergman’s character affects her relationship to her husband. The most obvious example is those bodies at Pompeii, which turn out to be a man and a woman, who their narrating friend comments were “surprised by death.” She also goes to visit a cathedral at one point, where the camera lingers on her eyes drifting over one of those gruesome “plague sarcophagi,” topped by a sculpture of an emaciated body, and later walks with her friend through some catacombs lined with skulls. I’m not sure I can put into words why right now, but the film really wants us to know that Ingrid Bergman has death on the brain in this movie.

So I did really appreciate the emotional subtlety of Journey to Italy, but in the end I think it failed to endear itself to me. It’s realistic portrait of a rapidly disintegrating marriage is maybe a little too realistic for me. While Martin Scorsese, interviewed in the accompanying Criterion special features, says he finds the final reconciliation of the central couple beautiful and romantic, I can’t get myself to the same place. These people have been fighting through the whole movie, are we supposed to think everything is fixed now? They don’t have kids, maybe they’d both be happier if they just got the divorce. Perhaps that ambiguity has helped this film stay relevant over 75 years on.

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