“I realise that, for the first time, we are like strangers.”
“That’s right. After eight years of marriage it seems we don’t know anything about each other… it seems a strange discovery to make.”
Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia) is the third collaboration between the director and his wife Ingrid Bergman, and is considered to mark a move from neorealism – pioneered by Rossellini and his Italian contemporaries Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti and others, and regarded as a spent force at this juncture – into the beginnings of a contemplative modernist aesthetic. The modernist style of filming allowed for leisurely tracks of individuals against concrete environments that reflect their psychological states, as opposed to the more literal depiction found in neorealist pictures that prided societal observation and comment over personal introspection. One film that would eventually refine this aesthetic to perfection was Antonioni’s L’avventura, whose lead actress and perennial wanderer Monica Vitti has since become an emblem for the modernist sensibility.
Journey to Italy follows its own uncertain wanderers in middle-aged couple Catherine and Alexander Joyce (Bergman and a steely George Sanders) as they drive their way to inspect the Naples villa of a recently deceased uncle. Their stilted, directionless exchanges inside the car set the scene well; this is a stuffy partnership, way past sell-by-date and beyond hope of reconciliation. Still, silence is the overriding noise in these first small instances of wandering time, leaving us to become accustomed to the expressive faces of straight, stubborn and critical Alex, and anxious, frustrated Catherine. A herd of cattle crosses their path, bringing the car to a standstill in the road. The journey is thus prolonged; so too is the intolerable time they must spend in one another’s company. Intercutting often allocates the married couple into their respective frames during the film’s dialogue, though they have a tendency to share in the silent moments.
“It seems the poor woman couldn’t understand you,” says Alex’s guide at the villa. “You must be making the wrong gestures.” The man isn’t referring to Catherine: this telling statement follows Alex’s persistent attempts to have his Italian-speaking maid pour him another glass of wine, though the entire drawn-out sequence, following Alex all the way from his balcony to the basement in real-time – a modernist preference – gives an insight into the priorities of the boorish Mr. Joyce.
Fresh surroundings have the power to alter a person’s perspective, or cast new light on their understanding of existing relationships; but Alex is the moral absolutist in contrast to his wife Catherine (stubbornly steadfast herself, though more of a relativist in her ruminations) and so chooses to immerse himself in the familiar comforts of alcohol and female company. As Alex boozes and lounges, Catherine ventures forth to explore the cultural sights of the city, and it’s here that we see Rossellini’s modernist impulses come to full fruition.
On her visit to a museum, Catherine balks at the looming statues of gods and emperors, shot with an emphasis on their grandeur. The camera swirls beneath their chiselled figures, granting prominence to eyes bulging forth at the distressed woman, who reels gasping from their gaze. The domineering men are all too familiar.
Catherine pieces the puzzle further upon a visit to the catacombs, where the sight of skulls in abundance causes her to become acutely aware of her own mortality, the passage of time and her repressed desire to bear fruit. Finally, a trip to the Pompeii ruins provides both her and Alex with a startling wake-up call. “They may have found death together,” says the guide, as their eyes fall upon a pair of bodies unearthed from the ground belonging to a man and a woman. Time is running out.
This critical shock borne of a resonant locale simultaneously reflects Catherine’s mentality at its most feverish and hauls it out into the open air. It is Naples’ decisive, blatant last provocation; a final blow to cap off a series of suggestive situations.
However, key to the film’s presentation of this awakening is the crucial prism by which much of Catherine’s self-awakening is garnered. The Joyce’s automobile is a vessel that grants immense privilege to its owner. Whoever drives the car dictates its direction and thus commands the state of play, with the passenger (usually Catherine) occupying the subservient role. Its source of dominance is exemplified in the level of bickering that takes place over its usage, with both Alex and Catherine squabbling daily over who has need of it more.
Alex’s use of the car isn’t entirely validated. It gets him from A to B, and in one meandering instance serves the function of carrying himself and a prostitute around in aimless circles before his eventual return home. Catherine’s time in the car is far more purposeful. It transports her to each of the cultural landmarks that occupy the majority of her time spent in Naples. Although these environments each rouse a terrifying realisation within her, it is inside the car that she believes she is offered sound protection. As a tourist, she occupies an insular cabin on wheels from which she can view the foreign outside world at her whim. But much like the cinema screen itself, semblances of the Real protrude on the exterior of her voyeuristic position, reminding of her personal anxiety.
On her first journey, Catherine observes a great bus raiding through smaller traffic, followed by the gaze of men on the street peering into her window. Equally engendering feelings of submissiveness is the slew of pedestrians crossing her path in the street, undermining her right of way. In successive journeys Catherine talks aloud, enlightening us to her thoughts, though the visual clues on the surrounding streets give greater insight as to her mental preoccupations; she spots couples walking together happily, succeeded by a wealth of women strolling alone with their prams and not a male in sight.
In a climactic scene hearkening back to the first, Catherine and Alex drive straight into the thick of a procession, one of far greater magnitude than the obstructive herd of cattle at the film’s beginning. There’s nothing left for the couple to do but remove themselves from the haven of the car and the tyranny of each other’s company, to immerse themselves fully in the swathes of people swarming through the streets.
In a hectic moment of near-separation amidst the ruckus, they reaffirm their love for each other, but the apparently rosy ending – a cop-out to the least discerning viewer – is the most deceptive gesture of all, purely because it has been conditioned by the immediate environment enveloping the lovers. The jubilant parade, the threat of separation and their subsequent atomised relief have an incredible bearing on the decision to reconcile. Rossellini’s camera isn’t so sure; it turns away from their final embrace, panning into the procession, leaving the wavering lovers to their indeterminate future. What happens once they’re back in the car is anyone’s guess.
Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy is rereleased in UK cinemas on Friday 10 May