Take it for what it’s worth, but speaking as a bachelor, if there is a greater movie about marriage than Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954) floating around out there in filmdom, then I haven’t seen it. (If you know of a superior example, feel free to mention it in the comments section.) Ever since having seen Martin Scorsese’s documentary My Voyage in Italy in which the famed director takes the viewer on a personal journey through his own experience of Italian film and how it has influenced his work, I have wanted to track down many of the films of Roberto Rossellini, particularly his several 1950’s collaborations with his wife at the time, Ingrid Bergman. At the time of seeing Scorsese’s doc, I believe I had only seen Rossellini’s groundbreaking neorealist masterpiece, Rome, Open City. Unfortunately for me, many of his other films remained unavailable on DVD and even VHS (for those of you who can remember back that far). Gradually, however, I managed to catch several of his films, thanks to a few Criterion collection DVD releases and a couple of retrospective screenings in Los Angeles, but Journey to Italy continued to illude me. Fortunately, TCM recently programmed a month long tribute to the director and much to my delight Journey to Italy was included.
By 1954, Rossellini had progressed beyond the neorealist stylings of his early films and was pioneering a new, richer kind of cinema. In his review for the Cahier du cinéma, François Truffaut called it the first “modern film”, by which he meant the principles of modernism, which for decades had already influenced the world of literature, poetry, and painting, was finally beginning to seep into the world of film. Novelists like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and William Faulkner; poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; and painters like Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso had revolutionized their particular art forms (in some ways for better and in others for worse) by making the subjective, individual experience the focus of the work rather than the objective, external event. As a result, devices such as first-person narration, stream-of-consciousness, and Impressionism had become dominant forms of artistic representation since the late 19th century in every form of media except the cinema. That is, until Rossellini.
Truffaut was right to describe the film as modernist, but he was not complete in saying so because it seems to me that there are elements at work in the film which transcend modernism, and those elements are what I like to call “grace”. The film tells the story of a middle aged British couple played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders whose marriage is quickly collapsing in on itself due to bitterness, petty jealousy, and wounded ego’s. They seemed destined for divorce, and as a viewer, one might be forgiven for thinking that after the way they treat each other, it might well be for the best. Nevertheless, due to a recently deceased relative, the two are forced together for a furlough to Naples in order to sell a piece of inherited property. While there, they flirt with the idea of divorce, while each in their own way toys with the idea of an extramarital affair prefiguring the self-imposed temptations presented to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (another excellent film about marriage).
Bergman’s and Sander’s personalities seem to be as different as the landscapes in which they wander; her romanticism vs. his condescending irony is as stark a contrast as the vitality of Naples (streets teeming with pregnant women) is with the desolation of Pompeii, which the couple visits accompanied by an archaeologist friend who is excavating the ruins of the destroyed island. Rossellini’s isolated characters, as well as his mastery of empty space within the frame of his images can almost be seen as a turning point in the history of cinema. Fellow countryman, Michelangelo Antonioni would later turn similar forms of alienation into an artform unto itself. Jean-Luc Godard would take Rossellini’s existential inquest and deconstruct them to revolutionary effect. And the European artfilm movements of the 1950’s and 60’s are born. But Rossellini doesn’t stop there.
While viewing the excavations on Pompeii, they witness the plaster casting of a buried human form, killed long ago by the eruption of Vesuvius, now found buried under layers of volcanic debris, frozen in a position of everyday life–a snapshot in time caught at the unexpected moment of death. It’s a powerful moment both as a viewer and for the Bergman character who is brought to tears forced to suddenly confront the fragility of life. The moment is not only a profound recognition of human temporality, but also a metaphor for the relationship between Bergman and Sanders. Even he, the anti-sentimentalist, appears to be moved by the sight.
Rossellini would later go on to boast about his atheism, but for those who have seen his films, it’s sometimes difficult to take the claim seriously. He was fascinated with finding the miraculous within everyday life, and like Flannery O’Connor, with exploring the seemingly arbitrary workings of grace. In films such as Rome, Open City or The Flowers of St. Francis, grace flows as naturally from the story as a prayer from the lips of a saint, but in later films such as Stromboli, Europa ’51, and Journey to Italy, grace works much more mysteriously and more shockingly, because it’s almost unexpected. In the films finale, after having returned to the mainland from Pompeii and with marital dissolution seemingly inevitable, the couple accidentally drive into the middle of a religious parade in which shouts of a miracle having happened ring out among the turbulent crowd. The two are inadvertently swept up into the surging masses and separated. As one critic put it, their reunion amidst the “…noisy crowd becomes an intimate epiphany, and [at once] a rigorously understated film becomes an overwhelming vision.” It is here in which Rossellini’s film transcends the stylistic trappings of modernism and shows a deeper understanding of human nature than any artistic movement can on its own provide. It is here in which alienation makes way for genuine connection, and in which existential angst and despair finds hope in the love of another.