Friday, October 21, 2016

Journey to Italy (1954)

Viaggio in Italia, Italy / France, 80 minutes
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Writers: Vitaliano Brancati, Roberto Rossellini, Colette, Antonio Pietrangeli
Photography: Enzo Serafin
Music: Renzo Rossellini, Giacomo Rondinella
Editor: Jolanda Benvenuti
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Maria Mauban, Anna Proclemer, Paul Muller, Anthony La Penna, Natalia Ray, Jackie Frost

Director and cowriter Roberto Rossellini's third and last picture with his wife, Ingrid Bergman, shortly before their marriage ended, almost seems like an imaginary movie now, something that someone wrote about in a novel. That's probably more because of its relative obscurity. A beast with no natural home, a neorealist piece with Hollywood stars, an art film and a woman's picture all at once, it was released to terrible reviews and short runs, variously butchered in attempts to make it more commercial, and quickly sank like a stone. Besides all the confusing markers—an Italian movie shot in English, with stars but whose careers were on the slide—it's also about the end of a marriage, which makes it a complete and total bummer. Audiences at the time were baffled, which tells you something about different times.

For all that, the influence of Journey to Italy has grown over the years. Now safely installed in the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, it could almost be reverse-engineered from close viewings of Abbas Kiarostami's amazing Certified Copy, from 2010, or Richard Linklater's series of "Before" movies with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. It's about a relationship going bad, and incidentally about how travel can complicate that. One reason it flopped, and still languishes in all but critical obscurity, is likely exactly this downbeat trajectory. If it still seems a little alien now on that score, that's more for its general air of reticence. Among other things, Journey to Italy is also a story of the clash between repressed Northern Europeans and lusty life-affirming Southern Europeans. In the scope of film history, it can also serve as a milestone finish to Italian neorealism, Rossellini's career bread and butter, which was arguably no longer operative by 1954. It's also a swooning look at the layers of history with which we live. There is some sense here that the events could have happened hundreds and thousands of years ago, or that they could still happen now and in the future, and very little about the story would have to be changed. The threat of Mount Vesuvius is the only constant.

Alex Joyce (George Sanders) and his wife Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) have traveled to Italy to settle the Naples estate of an uncle who recently died. (The Joyces' last name is a self-conscious reference to one narrative source, "The Dead" by James Joyce.) Even as the movie begins, Alex and Katherine are at odds about their purposes. They've been married eight years and it's starting to go a little dull, or sour. Alex describes the travel as a business trip, complaining that they rented a car and drove instead of flying, but Katherine has looked forward to a tour of Italy. She is disconcerted that they get along so poorly outside the company of their friends. Soon after their arrival at the estate, they pursue separate activities during the day, avoiding one another. Alex is a certain epitome of imperialist pig, to use a phrase, feeling himself above the Italian peasants with whom he can't make himself understood, and seeking company with casual wealthy friends he meets on nearby Capri, who are more of his own set.

For her part, Katherine sentimentalizes about a romantic young man she once befriended, a poet, whose lines she murmurs and repeats: "Temple of the spirit / No longer bodies, but pure ascetic images, compared to which thought itself becomes leaden, opaque, heavy." Alex doesn't remember him. He has a point when he snorts at the poetry and calls him a fool, but just because he has a point doesn't mean he isn't a jackass. Katherine grows miffed and resentful, feelings that linger and accompany her on her tours. She visits the ancient sources of Naples, first settled by the Greeks, later made into a vacation resort area by the Romans, and even later deeply marked by various mystifications of the Catholic Church. She even visits the geological features that mark it as a volcano region, which is some of the best stuff here.

And that's about how it rolls for its compressed running time. I saw an 80-minute version (with an excellent commentary track by Laura Mulvey) on a Korean DVD I bought several years ago, which erroneously labels it as 87 minutes. Criterion released it in 2013 in a package with the two other movies Rossellini made with Bergman (Stromboli and Europe '51) and that version is labeled as 85 minutes. Others run in the neighborhoods of 97 and 105 minutes. In other words, it's the usual troubles with one of these cinema classics that struggled commercially and was mauled. For whatever reason, Netflix doesn't carry the Criterion, so it's still not that easy to see, another feature of many of these classics. I ran hot and cold on it, respectively, the first couple times I saw it, but more recently, especially with Mulvey's commentary track, I found it opening up pretty well. It delivers a totally unbelievable Hollywood happy ending in the last few minutes, but whatever. File that with the Huck Finn problem. There are no good ways to end these things, particularly when they come from a period of time that seemed resistant even to the idea of a fractious unhappy marriage in the first place. It's worth seeing for that reason alone, as a historical curiosity. I'm making it the movie of the year for 1954, but only because no fewer than three others could have been my first choice, if I hadn't got to them already. If you like Certified Copy and the "Before" movies (such as Before Midnight), you kind of owe it to yourself to check out Journey to Italy.

Top 10 of 1954
1. La Strada
2. Rear Window
3. Seven Samurai
4. Journey to Italy
5. On the Waterfront
6. Sansho the Bailiff
7. Dragnet
8. Twenty-four Eyes
9. Dial M for Murder
10. Creature From the Black Lagoon

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading a book called Dolce Vita Confidential by Shawn Levy that spends a bit of time on Rossellini/Bergman. I've enjoyed the others of Levy's books I've read. I don't think I realized how central the paparazzi would be to this book. It's almost a cultural history. Anyway, despite understanding about the great controversy over Rossellini and Bergman, it never occurred to me that it was part of the eventual "Dolce Vita" era.