Like most great artists, Roberto Rossellini experienced swings in critical opinion throughout his career. His reputation, especially in Italy, was built on what came to be known as his neorealist features – Rome, Open City and Paisa – but Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, 1954), the third of five films he made with his then-wife Ingrid Bergman, was accused of betraying the cause of neorealism for a vein, self-serving involution. However, the critics at Cahiers du Cinema – the future Nouvelle Vague – were characteristically prescient, with Jean-Luc Godard learning that “All you need to make a movie is a man, a woman, and a car”.
Re-released in a new restoration this month by the BFI to tie in with their ‘Roots of Neorealism’ season, its greater legacy perhaps lies in the French New Wave. Like Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960), Journey to Italy starts as a road movie but it is one that is confined by the enforced parameters of a faltering marriage. Bergman and George Sanders play the estranged couple, Katherine and Alex, who are on their way to Naples to sell a property left to them by a recently deceased uncle.
In its classical function, the open road grafts a journey of possibility and companionship; yet here, as Bergman and Sanders sit so close in the car yet so apart, the silences matter and the future is dead time. “I have realised for the first time, we’re like strangers”, Bergman sombrely says, and she had personal authority here; at the time her own marriage with Rossellini was falling apart. Always operating in the liminal space between documentary and fiction – even when the reality in question was his own marriage – Rossellini created movement from stasis, with his camera at a distance but constantly re-framing to the actors’ intuition (much of Journey to Italy was, indeed, improvised).
The background of Vesuvius dominates the landscape, both geographically and historically, and positions the personal anxieties of Katherine and Alex alongside the collective trauma of a nation. The historical past becomes the future as Katherine spends her days being ushered by men around museums, catacombs and the ruins of Pompeii, which represent the erosion of her relationship and the permanence of history. This stands in contrast to the scenes where Katherine and Alex venture into Naples, amongst the fertility signified by pregnant mothers and women pushing prams, and also by the religious procession in the film’s miraculous final scene.
Although Rossellini transitioned many distinct stages throughout his career, most of his key themes persisted, such as the exigency of time, the impact of the past on the present and the fear of history repeating itself in the future. After Journey to Italy, however, history was not to repeat itself. It was arguably Rossellini’s last great film and remains one of the finest portraits of matrimonial decay ever committed to film.