Despite all the irritating behavior exhibited by both spouses in Journey to Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s film is ultimately a work of great compassion.
Journey to Italy. Directed by Roberto Rossellini. At the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA.
By Betsy Sherman
“Where are we?” and “I don’t know, exactly” are the first lines spoken in Journey to Italy. The speakers are a well-to-do, British couple on a road trip to Italy to sell off a villa left to the wife by her late uncle. That opening exchange resonates when, cooped up in their Bentley, they realize that after eight years of marriage they remain virtual strangers. Katherine and Alex Joyce will need more than a road map to find out where they are, where they’re going, and whether they will go there together.
Roberto Rossellini’s 1953 masterwork—right up there with classics like his Open City and Flowers of St. Francis—returns to a familiar screen in a new format. Decades ago, the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square regularly included the film among its art-house offerings. Then, sadly, film prints of Journey to Italy became rare. But now the domestic drama, starring Rossellini’s then-wife Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, is available in a digital restoration. It launches a series of digital presentations on the Brattle’s new DCP projection system (fortunately a complement to, not a replacement for, its film projectors).
This was the fourth of five features Rossellini made starring Bergman. Roberto and Ingrid’s adulterous affair in 1949 (and her subsequent pregnancy) had caused an international scandal and resulted in Bergman’s banishment from Hollywood. Their partnership produced three children and some wonderfully complex films, but by the time Journey to Italy was shot, the marriage had gone sour. It’s tempting to wonder how much autobiographical material Rossellini put into the film; still, despite the abundance of irritating behavior exhibited by both Joyce spouses, Journey to Italy is ultimately a work of great compassion.
Rossellini had wanted to star Bergman and Sanders in a film adaptation of Colette’s novel Duo, about an upper-class husband’s discovery that his wife had been unfaithful. He wasn’t able to get the rights. The storyline he ended up filming was fashioned by the writer-director from day to day, during the shoot. Locations included Naples, Capri, and Pompeii.
From that opening scene on an Italian road, during which a farmer and his buffalo turn up to impede their way, the Joyces are made to leave the safety of their Bentley and step into the rich sensuality of the Italian countryside. A pattern emerges: by themselves, they engage in spiky dialogues marked by bitter accusations and self-contradictions. Katherine is brittle and reproachful; Alex comes off as sarcastic and dismissive. Then, once they join the society of others, each becomes jealous when a potential rival causes their spouse to smile or laugh.
Do we even want to spend 90 minutes with these people? I admit, it’s rocky at first, but the answer is yes. Rossellini lets the audience see what the blinkered Brits don’t see. On the one hand, they are out of touch with the beautiful, fertile land and its warm, lively people. On the other, it’s the omnipresence of death, embodied by Mount Vesuvius on the horizon. Mortality is presented in the film as a partner to life, most obviously in a scene where a young wife prays to have a baby in a catacomb chapel in which skulls line the walls.
Counting back eight years means that Katherine and Alex probably fell in love during the war, a time of chaos and fragility. Clearly, they have long since settled into the reassuring roles they play for each other’s benefit: she the sensible, capable homemaker/hostess, he the nimble-witted businessman. This flare-up of bickering during their trip makes each seek diversion. On their respective routes, they give in to the vulnerability that, ironically, could bring them closer together if they’re ever able to show it to each other.
Alex hopes for a romantic adventure with Marie, a French woman who’s visiting the island of Capri. That Marie is wearing a cast on her leg means that she literally leans on Alex, a feeling of nurturing he obviously likes and doesn’t experience with his sensibly shod wife. Katherine looks for spiritual nourishment, for something beyond the physical and material. To help tell her story, Rossellini borrows an anecdote from James Joyce’s great story “The Dead”: a wife’s revelation to her husband that a sensitive, young man had died out of love for her. In this adaptation, the boy was a poet on whose verses Katherine obsesses: “. . . temple of the spirit. No longer bodies, but pure ascetic images, compared to which mere thought seems flesh, heavy, dim.” After driving to a Naples museum—all buttoned up, protected by sunglasses and gloves–she seeks uplift among the magnificent statues of Roman gods, emperors, and athletes. All she finds is a “complete lack of modesty.”
The two leads are superb because of (or in spite of?) Rossellini’s seat-of-the-pants method. Tag Gallagher, in his biography The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films, posits that the director willfully, and rather gleefully, kept his stars off balance so their performances would feed into the characters’ discombobulation. That may well be so for Sanders, a scrumptiously malevolent presence in Hollywood movies, best known as theater critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. The actor amusingly blasts Rossellini and the Journey to Italy shoot in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad. In truth, he should have thanked the director for forcing him to stretch. While Sanders’ trademark haughty purr is just right for Alex in the early scenes, the actor ventures forth from his arch comfort zone of aloof-and-superior later on, after Alex’s encounters with a succession of women have very different outcomes from what he planned. You can feel Sanders cave in a little, which makes us feel more sympathy for Alex.
You’d imagine Bergman would have been well used to the drill by then, although she reportedly was not fond of being asked by Rossellini to improvise. It’s a mark of her talent that she was able to give such a moving performance playing a cold, unlikeable (at least initially) woman. She doesn’t hold back on Katherine’s shrewishness but helps us feel how the woman can’t control her petulance while in Alex’s presence. Katherine has more screen time than Alex, and her thoughts are made audible, so Bergman has an ample opportunity to explore her character’s yearning for connection, and her panic at the prospect of a divorce.
The ending provides two peaks of emotion. During the first passage, with Katherine and Alex united (in space, and within the film frame) at an excavation at Pompeii, the story’s themes converge in a shockingly apt image. For the second passage, which takes place in Naples during a crowded religious procession, it’s as if a fever breaks. Whatever seemingly haphazard path Rossellini trod to bring these conflicted characters to these moments, he conjures up epiphanies of compelling inevitability.