In case you didn’t know, after years of traffic-snarling reconstruction of its ancient squares, Naples is again becoming a tourist destination so readers of the Guardian Travel section will be pleased to learn that January’s film is Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, 1954). With its sweeping views of the region, its historic locations and concern with the Neapolitan people, the film has been likened to a travelogue but its scenery is just the backdrop for the two characters to discover themselves. Hitchcock once said, “Some directors make films that are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.” Don’t look for cake here, unless you have a mature taste.
Acclaimed as director Roberto Rossellini’s greatest achievement to date and included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die by Steven Schneider, the film is considered a masterpiece of Italian neo-realism. Rapturously admired by French New Wave directors such as Godard, Rohmer and Rivette, and by the critic and film theorist, André Bazin, it was also voted one of the Top 50 films of all time by a poll of BFI Sight & Sight Critics in 2012.
English married couple, Katherine and Alex Joyce (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders), drive to Italy to holiday in Naples and also to negotiate the sale of a villa they have inherited. We become aware of a coolness in their relationship as she remembers a poet who loved her and died in the war; although she didn’t love him, the memory of romance underscores its absence from her life now. With her, Alex is sarcastic; with him, Katherine is critical. In fact the two don’t seem to communicate much and amid the tension they come to the conclusion that their marriage is breaking down and they don’t know what to do about it. Eventually they decide to spend time apart during the trip. Catherine goes on a sightseeing tour of Naples while Alex hangs out in Capri.
In Naples Katherine visits the Museum and the Catacombs, while Alex engages in an unsuccessful flirtation in nearby Capri. Later, while visiting Pompeii together they are powerfully affected by seeing the bodies of two lovers being unearthed by archaeologists. It is a moment designed to reflect on their relationship and yet the various aspects of Naples seem to add to the strain in their marriage – even when, still later, they witness an apparent miracle. As their voyage progresses we wonder whether they will find insight and direction from their sojourn.
This is one of those pictures where nothing much happens, at least on the surface, but a narrow stream runs deep behind every seemingly inconsequential scene that actually points to Katherine and Alex’s marriage. Beautifully shot in the streets and museums of Naples, on the island of Capri and in the ruins of Pompeii, its uncomplicated story celebrates a lyrical expressionism. Its narrative simplicity and the naturalistic performances of both stars convey a subtle emotional realism while the the locations and environment are articulated by poetic cinematography. Although it did not do well on its release in Italy, the film has garnered praise in France and the UK and is now recognized as a key work of modern cinema.
Partly a character study, partly an intimate travel film and partly a film about Naples and the effect of history, the themes of Viaggio in Italia interrogate not only this marriage but also the sensuality of Italian culture and the effects it can have on people who hail from emotionally and physically colder climes. The quietly absorbing psychodrama of the film is also said to reflect difficulties that Bergman and Rossellini (seen together in the picture on the right) were experiencing in their own marriage at the time .
By 1954, Ingrid Bergman had spent several years working in Italy, after her scandalous affair with – and then marriage to – Rossellini caused her to fall out of favour with American audiences. Here, she gives a subtle and touching performance as an unappreciated wife who is now disillusioned by the lack of love in her marriage. George Sanders (remember his fleeting appearance in the 1936 Man Who Could Work Miracles?), after his performance in countless 1940s dramas as a roguish suitor, achieves a mature, refined level of charm in this role that requires us to believe he can catch the eye of young ladies in Capri.
European filmmakers are often less interested in dialogue than in images and feelings. While the Italian neo-realist project was now on the wain (Bicycle Thieves was 1948), Rossellini still utilizes its style here to explore what in Hollywood could have been a romantic drama. This makes waiting for actions to make something happen quite pointless but rather we should be alert to emotional shifts. Of course, sometimes this results in boredom or disappointment or even pretentiousness. But this is not the case here. These are bourgeoisie caricatures but, probably because Rossellini had a loose script, they were able to invent dialogue that was much more natural .
Born in 1906 to a father who opened Italy’s first cinema, Roberto Rossellini was immersed in cinema from an early age, growing up watching movies in his father’s movie-house at a time when film was becoming an art form in Italy and having a great influence on directors like D.W. Griffith. Of course Italian cinema was desimated by the Second World War but at its close Rossellini was one of those who once again put Italy at the forefront of international cinema. He won the Grand Prize at Cannes with the anti-fascist Rome, Open City in 1945 and two neo-realist classics followed, Paisan (1946 which won an Oscar in 1950) and Germany Year Zero (1948).
“I do not want to make beautiful films, I want to make useful films,” he said. Rossellini claimed, “I try to capture reality, nothing else.”
Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman became lovers on the set of Stromboli (1950) while both were married to other people. They had three children but their eventual marriage foundered when Rossellini became involved with Indian screenwriter Sonali Senroy DasGupta, while in India at the request of Prime Minister Nehru. This touched off another international scandal and Nehru ousted him from the country.
Rossellini died in Rome in 1977. Ingrid Bergman died in London in 1982.