Historic Holiday: Roberto Rossellini’s Journey To Italy (1954) – Blu-ray review
Rossellini refines neo-realism into neo-modernism – a marital drama whose allusive grip on reality comes from the dissonance between what is acted and what is filmed.
Journey To Italy
(Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
With their stormy marriage on the rocks, there’s a cruel symmetry to Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman making a film about a marriage on the rocks, with Bergman’s English visitor Katherine and her husband Alex (George Sanders) on a strained business trip-cum-holiday to Italy. For those who are so inclined, there are obvious temptations to locate autobiographical meaning in the collision of Hollywood stars and neo-realist backdrops; for everyone else, there is this strange, beguiling art-house movie.
A look at the most recent Sight and Sound poll reveals Journey To Italy lodged in the Top 50, between La Dolce Vita and Some Like It Hot. At first glance, this seems too slight and small-scale to rank alongside more iconic, demonstrative classics, but Rossellini was forging something new. This is an intensely focussed cinema, whose apparent plainness holds a formal and emotional complexity about lives defined by their relationship with their environment – it is a modernist use of film akin to the literary novel.
There is certainly interest at a surface level; indeed, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight is a virtual remake in its depiction of a couple’s fault lines slowly revealing themselves during a Mediterranean break, sharing Rossellini’s psychological acuity in its deft two-hander performance piece. But really, look not as to what happens (the couple drift apart and then, perhaps, form a fragile reconciliation) but how it is told. The slightly stiff, actorly lead performances – Bergman icy, Sanders imperious – are at odds with the laissez-faire passion of their hosts, who are tactile, vocal, in love with each other and with life. The opening sequence sets the skewed stage: the stars inside a car, shot classically; the outer world presented as documentary, with farmers nudging cattle along the road.
It’s hard to imagine these two being cast as lovers in a Hollywood movie and Rossellini uses that dissonance to his advantage; they’re not meant to feel right together (and, indeed, Rossellini drove them mad, Sanders especially, by constantly changing the script or demanding that the actors improvise). So they fall back on tried-and-tested methods. When the opportunity arises for Alex to take his leave by following a lively young bunch to Capri, he does exactly what the George Sanders of All About Eve would do, lording it up at parties. As for Bergman… well, this tortured star, forced against her will in Notorious and Gaslight, or stuck in enemy territory in Casablanca, is left with the dead.
Literally: Cathy’s time in Italy consists of visits to museums, catacombs and – ultimately – the ruins of Pompeii. Rossellini uses tour guides to show us in lengthy sequences what we are viewing, and why, allowing unprecedented time for reflection on the transience of history. A director famous for documenting ‘now’ is suddenly taking an interest in ‘then,’ and the film poses questions of representation and legacy. Can art give a realistic window onto how life was or are we constantly aware of its manipulation, as the mourners who find skeletons in the catacombs in lieu of loved ones lost overseas? Is marriage just as perilous a construct – the history books showing that two people were together without giving any sense of the nuance?
The symbolism opens a wide canvas of the differences between husband and wife, in terms of temperament, culture and depth of feeling. And then, at Pompeii, two bodies are revealed at their point of death: were they husband and wife? Cathy is moved; despite his haughty exterior, so too is Alex, so when they are literally parted during a town festival he moves quickly to console her. The film ends with them entwined, buried in film like the lovers were by Vesuvius, and giving this tiny film a resonance that has lasted.