Journey to Italy is streaming on BFI Player.
Roberto Rossellini has always placed great importance on the rhythm of his movies. In one of the dialogue scenes of perhaps his most famous and important film, Rome, Open City, there is a barely perceptible sound of the director tapping his finger on a wooden chair. The resulting subtle thumps are eerie and dark, affecting not just the mood, but also the unconsciously perceived rhythm of the scene.
With his war trilogy - Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1948) - Rossellini launched Italian neorealism, redefining what cinema could be, influencing generations of directors and other cinematic movements around the world. This was raw, uncompromising filmmaking that became a much-needed cathartic and rehabilitating experience for the devastated societies of post-war Europe.
But as Martin Scorsese rightly asks in one of his Criterion interviews about Rossellini: “What do you do after you change how the world thinks of cinema? What’s next?”
Journey to Italy (1954), a painfully intimate portrayal of a marriage in disintegration, felt like a radical departure from Rossellini’s neorealist roots for the audiences at the time, and the film was not well received.
It is indeed a very different film, but death, tragedy and the pain of war are haunting presences throughout Journey to Italy. And Rossellini’s uncanny ability to wield his cinematic magic with absolute rhythmic control is also intact. However, he puts it to a completely different use here in creating what François Truffaut called ‘the first modern film’.
It opens with marvellous shots filmed from inside a car swiftly moving along an Italian road - our journey has started. The couple are Katherine (played by Ingrid Bergman) and Alex (George Sanders), English aristocrats who are in Italy on business. Following the death of Alex’s uncle Homer the couple are here to arrange the sale of his house, and they do not plan to stay long. But they will, of course. And their time in Italy will plunge them into the depths of soul searching, leading to the collapse of their relationship.
It’s as if by coming to Italy these uptight northerners enter a different time-space continuum. Just as their confident, pacy drive through the Italian countryside is quickly brought to a halt by a herd of cows leisurely crossing the road, our characters are stopped in their tracks and their life is thrown into disarray by the rhythms of local life and the weight of both recent and ancient Italian history. It’s as if they suddenly find themselves in zero gravity, floating around aimlessly, with nothing that is familiar or structured to ground their anxieties and fears of mortality.
The innovative aspect of Journey to Italy is how the direction of this story affects the film’s structure. Very soon Rossellini abandons any traditional focus on narrative development and fills the movie with scenes and episodes that do not seem to move the story forward, but instead function as digressions that explore a variety of themes, locations and ideas. There are parallels here with the innovations of modernist literature, and the central couple’s surname - Joyce - is surely no coincidence.
The film’s meandering structure and seemingly unconnected episodes are not purposeless, however, and are central to our understanding of the characters’ most private emotions. Rossellini’s thematic preoccupations with Neapolitan history and geography, with its physical manifestations of death and tragedy - Vesuvius, the ruins of Pompeii, the catacombs, the visible social effects and recent memory of WWII - become an indivisible part of our characters’ psychological states and emotional journeys. But it isn’t all death and gloom: folk music, the leisurely pace of local life, breathtaking landscapes, and elaborate religious processions are just as much a part of the film’s emotional core.
In my favourite scene Katherine visits the National Archeological Museum and encounters a series of ancient statues. Rossellini’s camera moves gently around the statues, as if caressing and enveloping them. There is great drama in the way the camera gradually reveals the details of the sculptural compositions and the way it swooshes into a close-up of one of the statues’ faces. It’s a perfect marriage between still and kinetic art, and for a moment these ancient faces become knowable.
This scene is greatly complemented by the nervous and quivering musical score by the director’s brother Renzo Rossellini. The music underpins the drama of Katherine’s encounter with the past and with beauty, and suggests to us that she is on the verge of an aesthetic and personal revelation. Who thought a visit to a museum could be so visceral?
All the magic of the setting, the music, and the cinematography, however, would not count for as much as they do if it wasn’t for the subtle and raw performance by Ingrid Bergman. Her ability to communicate strength and vulnerability at the same time can only be compared to that of Rossellini’s other great muse, Anna Magnani. Within a split second Bergman can go from delight to heartbreak, from gentle affection to contempt. George Sanders makes for a weighty and chewy presence, but the unfolding emotional journey of the central relationship hangs pretty much entirely on Bergman.
The movie’s final scene is particularly telling. Counter to everything that preceded it, our couple end up in a loving and forgiving embrace, a perfect Hollywood ending. The moment is difficult to believe, even if one considers Laura Mulvey’s interpretation of it as a literal miracle - it takes place in the middle of a crowded religious procession, after all. Despite the unlikeliness of the final scene, Bergman’s delivery of Katherine’s touching plea to Alex in that moment throws a powerful emotional punch which is not easy to shake off.