‘Journey To Italy’ opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, May 31st.
“Italian Neorealism (Italian: Neorealismo) is a national film movement characterized by stories set amongst the poor and the working class, filmed on location, frequently using non-professional actors. Italian Neorealist films mostly contend with the difficult economic and moral conditions of post-World War II Italy, representing changes in the Italian psyche and conditions of everyday life, including poverty, oppression, injustice and desperation.”
(Yes, it’s Wikipedia, but it’s as concise and accurate a description as any other I might come up with, and I want to dispense with the academia quickly to get to the film itself.)
“Dear Mr. Rossellini,
I saw your films Open City and Paisan, and enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only “ti amo”, I am ready to come and make a film with you.
The pleasantly surprised Roberto Rossellini cast Bergman in Stromboli (1950), and a mutual artistic admiration became a real-world affair, with the still-married Mrs. Petter Lindstrom bearing the still-married Rossellini a new son, Roberto Ingmar, shortly after Stromboli’s premiere. Hollywood essentially blacklisted her as a homewrecker consorting with her Italian communist lover; even the U.S. Senate put in its two-bits, with Senator Edwin C. Johnson (D-CO) vilifying her on the Senate floor.
And so it was that one of the founders of Italian Neorealist film (Roma Città Aperta [Rome, Open City] , Paisà [Paisan] ) came together with one of the finest actresses on the planet at the time (Casablanca, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Gaslight, Spellbound, Notorious).
Stromboli employed the neo-realist style in documenting the conservative, meager life of the inhabitants of the eponymous volcanic island, seen through the eyes of a hopeful, but eventually despairing, outsider. In Europa ’51 (1952), Bergman plays a wife and mother in mourning for her young son who devotes herself to self-sacrificing charitable work, and is eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital by her unsympathetic wealthy husband.
At this point, Italian critics were starting to lament that Rossellini was working away from the Neorealist ideal and becoming just another narrative filmmaker. “Journey to Italy is just what the title promises: a tourist visit around Naples and the surrounding area, with the pointless company of two people intent on torturing one another.”
Obviously, Journey To Italy (Viaggio In Italia) (Italy,1954) has outlasted that initial sour reception; in fact, the critics at the French journal Cahiers du Cinema knew right away what Rossellini was doing. (“If there is a modern cinema, this is it… “– Jacques Rivette – “”The arrival of Journey to Italy has suddenly made all other films look 10 years older.”) The Italians wanted Rossellini to make movies about Italy, using people to tell those stories. Journey To Italy was a movie about people, using Italy to tell that story. Fairly wealthy, self-sufficient people. Who weren’t Italians. But he still used Neorealist techniques – a documentary visual film style, with non-actors figuring prominently, and a script almost entirely improvised by its performers.
Alex and Katherine Joyce (George Sanders and Bergman) have come to Naples to sell a small estate that Alex has inherited from his Uncle Homer. They drove from London – Alex resents that they didn’t fly to save time, and considers this just another business trip. Katherine, with tourist guide in hand, wanted to get him away from business for a while for some actual leisure, and time alone together. But in the course of their day-to-day lives, it seems they never really considered how different they are from each other, how little they actually share, and how hollow their marriage has become. They settle into their small hotel, and admit as much to each other, bitterly acknowledging that they’ve each felt that way for the better part of their marriage.
The next day, they meet the estate’s executor, Tony Burton (Leslie Daniels), and his wife, Natalia (Natalia Ray). The house itself turns out to be extraordinary, with thrilling views of Vesuvius, Castellamare, the Isle of Capri, and the outskirts of Naples. Alex and Katherine settle in to stay there until it’s sold, with Tony and Natalia in an outlying cottage/coach-house.
Early in the film, in the car, Alex confesses to Katherine:
” It would have been so easy for me to solve the Lewis deal. There were at least three solutions that were better than the one I chose, and I just couldn’t think of them.”
“And you think of them now?”
“Now they seem very clear to me.”
Not only is this an instructive guide to who Alex is – he tosses this off casually, self-assured, a little arrogant, admitting a mistake he sees no reason, nonetheless, to subsequently reproach himself for – but it describes the odd delayed-reaction emotional rhythms that the couple participate in throughout the film. Dust-ups and disagreements are acknowledged, then quickly closed with rigorous brevity. But the feelings that each of those incidents evoke invariably inform the next scene, or the next day, and those afterthoughts, regrets and latent wounds accumulate meaningfully, perilously.
Katherine strikes out on her own to visit the museums and landmarks in the area. But Rossellini isn’t filming a simple tourist visit, despite critical insistence otherwise. Bergman is one of the most naturally expressive actors to have worked in film, and each statue and bust, each cavern and catacomb, each lava pool and steam spout that she visits expresses and exemplifies to her a sense of profound history, of common humanity, and humble resilience in the face of constructive and destructive nature.Her face, her demeanor, explains that all to us. It is a movie about Italy, in a way, but Katherine is the conduit through which we discover the larger issues inherent there. But Katherine is also,nonetheless, a very flawed, self-interested person, muttering insults about Alex to herself in the car, resentful when he strikes up social conversations with, and lights cigarettes for, unknown women, and rueful as she surveys the many baby carriages and pregnant women in the Naples thoroughfares.
Meanwhile, Alex joins the acquaintances of the late Uncle Homer on Capri, looking forward to a night of letting go and late-night partying. But they all retire distressingly early, disappointingly sober. Alex starts to woo the fetching Marie (Maria Mauban), only to discover that, just today, she’s reconciled with her estranged husband. He returns to Naples by ferry that afternoon, but stays out drinking, ends up at a local show club, and meets a prostitute he considers availing himself of. But he doesn’t go through with it, and dejectedly returns to the hotel, and Katherine.
Heading to the film’s conclusion, Alex and Katherine encounter a pair of events – their witnessing of an ancient couple being ‘unearthed’ (via plaster cast) from the crust of Vesuvius, and becoming ensnarled in a huge religious procession in the town – that lead them to reassess their recent experiences. In the midst of the procession’s chaos, having pronounced their venomous resentment of each other, they both then relent, resignedly, and declare their love for one another. The couples’ improvised dialogue here is a bit mawkish and abrupt, but these last sequences, thanks to Rossellini’s masterful visual reinforcement, are still quite effectively moving.
The slowly dissolving marriage portrayed here is said to mirror Bergman’s own dissolving marriage to Rossellini, despite their now having three children. (The twins Isabella and Ingrid arrived soon after Roberto Ingmar.) That fact most certainly informed much of Ingrid’s improvising, and inevitably, George Sanders’ as well, since Ingrid translated Rossellini’s directions to Sanders, who spoke no Italian and despised the idea of improvising the dialogue. But Rossellini’s unique realist approach to his characters, even as the overall narrative took on less primary importance, served as a model for hundreds of subsequent films, from Stanley Donen to Ingmar Bergman to Maurice Pialat.
The film is in English, and the Siskel Film Center is showing a brand-spanking new digitally restored print. This film was an important evolutionary step in Rossellini’s body of work, and is now considered, rightfully, to be a watershed of modern narrative filmmaking. Go.