Eye For Film >> Movies >> Journey To Italy (1953) Film Review
Journey To Italy is a portrait of a marriage in crisis. Alex and Katherine Joyce live in an emotional wasteland, which they constantly feel the need to people. At one point, Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) actually says as much ("This is the first time we've really been alone ever since we met") and then immediately seeks out the solace of others.
At first, our sympathies are with her because Alex (George Sanders) seems cold, imperious, cynical and sarcastic and only becomes animated in company. He is clearly not a man given to self-examination, or self-criticism. Gradually, we realise that he, like Katherine, is trapped by an inability to emote. In turn, each of them becomes jealous when the other socialises; they love each other, but are unable to convey this.
The story takes place during a week spent by Alex and Katherine in Italy, trying to sell a house that belonged to Alex's uncle. The cultural shock is palpable and yet they try to enforce their own values on their surroundings by seeking out like-minded people. Alex is restless, looking for adventure in the enforced stillness; Katherine, on the other hand, fills her time by visiting a number of Neapolitan archaeological and architectural sites, which gives director Roberto Rossellini a glorious opportunity to film Naples and its environs.
He cleverly imposes the past, either historically (the museum, the archaeological dig, Vesuvius), or figuratively (Katherine's former lover, Charles), alongside images of pregnant mothers and women pushing prams, to show that history, the past, the dead, all have value here in the present and in some way impact upon it. He seems preoccupied, not just with showing a domestic crisis in close-up, but also with revealing the cycle of life itself, from birth to death, from womb to tomb.
The film opens with movement frenetic, sweeping, implacable. A handheld camera gives the sense of the Joyces racing headlong into an unknown future. The film ends with a blockage. The couple are swept into a crowd of Italians, celebrating a festival, where they come to a standstill in the midst of frantic activity.
Finally, they are flung together, face to face, in the middle of something that is culturally alien to them, and it is only then that they can strip away their cynicism, indifference and fear and declare their love for each other.
In filming Journey To Italy, Rossellini exerted absolute control and prevented his stars from preparing their performances, or learning the script. Sanders, a consummate professional, wrote in his diaries that he hated this way of working and Bergman, whilst by now used to it, was never comfortable with improvisation, either. In addition, her marriage to Rossellini was beginning to unravel.
However, the consequence of prohibiting his cast from rehearsal is that the director coaxed performances out of his two stars that are utterly convincing because, feeling confused and disorientated, they beautifully inhabit the skins of the troubled, alienated and awkward characters they portray. Since the film so closely follows the couple, it is vital that we feel this sense of alienation and despair, and feel it we do. Their silences and asides - Katherine often voices her thoughts out loud, trying to convince herself that she hates Alex because he appears indifferent to her - all add to the tension and contribute to our sympathy for the fragility of their emotions and the desperation of their situation.
Journey To Italy deserves its five stars for three reasons. Firstly, Rossellini makes us believe in these two fragile people, who are dysfunctional unless they are in the company of others. Secondly, he gifted us with the most exquisite cinematography - Naples, its history, its people, its architecture are SO wonderfully illustrated. Lastly, he dared to challenge the art of filmmaking itself.
In 1953, when it came out, it was universally castigated, garnering terrible reviews and appalling box office returns. Yet it has come to be regarded as a masterpiece, one of the key works of modern cinema, because it does away with the conventions of plot and "traditional" Hollywood narrative and allows a thin, meandering storyline to stretch and fragment, providing breathing space for bigger ideas, such as reflections on the nature of existence and the historical and emotional past, with its impact on the present.Reviewed on: 10 May 2004