Last Monday I had the opportunity to attend a screening of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, which opens at the BFI (British Film Institute), Edinburgh Filmhouse and selected screens nationwide from the 10th May.
Katherine Joyce (Ingrid Bergman, and wife of Rossellini at the time) and her husband Alex (George Sanders) are travelling around Italy on their way to a villa they have just inherited. Far from their London home, Katherine confesses to having had a secret lover and finds her husband becomes even more distant with her; to such an extent that they decide to finish their holiday apart from each other. Whilst Alex enjoys the company of other ex-pats on the island of Capri, Katherine tours around the sights of Naples and Pompeii. However, the different events they experience begin to bind them together.
Journey to Italy was originally released in 1954 and for a black and white film which is six decades old, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the visuals and sound. I saw a new restoration of the film (by the Cinetica di Bologna) and I really think they’ve done a beautiful job. The beginning credits were not particularly engaging, but once the film opens to the scene of the two leads driving to Italy, we instantly want to know why they are driving in that country in particular and their relation to one another.
The film tells the story of Alexander (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) Joyce, a wealthy English couple who drive from England to the countryside near Naples, to sell a house Alex has recently inherited from his Uncle. Once in Italy, they realise that although they are married, they are like strangers to each other. Set over a week’s stay in Italy, Journey to Italy deals with the couple’s emotional distance from one another. This is compounded by their literal, physical distance during their Italian stay; Katherine decides to explore the museums and sights of Naples, Pompeii and Vesuvius, while Alex chooses to have fun and flirt with other women on the nearby island of Capri.
Journey to Italy shows a pretty realistic portrayal of a couple who have been married for eight years, but don’t really know or like each other. When together, Alex is sarcastic and critical, and Kathy is cold, humourless and confrontational. Sanders and Bergman are particularly fantastic at showing how withdrawn the couple are from one another. Alex’s dialogue is arguably the best part of the film. His sarcastic and dry wit used to disparage Italian culture and criticise Kathy is not only really funny, but shows how out of place with themselves and their location this very ‘English’ couple really are. Apparently, Rossellini didn’t give the actors a proper script or give them time to prepare in an attempt to instil a sense of confusion in his leads, which would then inform their depiction of the couple. The effects of this technique can clearly be seen in their sense of confounded loneliness. Having said that, occasionally the dialogue becomes so on-point that it is almost difficult to believe it was entirely improvised.
The couple’s marriage seems more realistic because it lacks the typical cheesy storylines or schmaltz we are used to in modern romantic comedies or dramas. Alex and Kathy admit that during their busy lives in London their marriage worked well, and I think this idea of demanding working lives distracting one from the problems in a relationship is something a viewer can relate to, several decades after the film was made.
Alex accuses Kathy of Romanticism, which is accurate. While Alex’s character experiences some growth on Capri by realising he does not want to sleep with a prostitute he picks up, it is really Kathy’s ventures out to local sights that are moving. The ancient sculptures at the museum in Naples, the smoky slopes of Vesuvius, Apollo’s temple, and the catacombs in the Fontanelle church, all invoke the idea of the sublime, an obsession of the Romantics. Once reunited near the end of the film, the couple are dragged to the excavation at Pompeii, where two plaster cast human figures of two original victims are gradually revealed. This is the culmination of the strange and moving sights Kathy has experienced and it becomes too much for her; she finally becomes emotional rather than cold and restrained.
I don’t want to spoil the ending in terms of whether they do go through with the divorce that Alex and Kathy eventually agree to, but I will point out that I think neither protagonist is particularly changed by the end. Rather we are privy to the epiphany that they are in love despite the faults in personality they find in each other.
Journey to Italy is often thought of as a modern film for its time and I would certainly agree. Kathy seems as strong willed and independently minded as Alex (she goes to the historical tourist sites by herself because she wants to go whether he will or not), and they can both be brutally clear about the failings in their relationship.
For a film released in 1954, before New Wave Cinema or the Second Wave of Feminism, Rosellini’s depiction of the couple’s marriage feels honest, real, and even painful. In my view the film is more about living with another and remaining sane than it is about love, and more about Romanticism than romance. However, I urge you to go and see this memorable piece of classic cinema and decide for yourself.
We give Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy 4 out of 5 Nerds