As you explore the outer edges of the Criterion galaxy as we do each year, you often are reminded of what a momentous movement the French New Wave was to the cinema world. Not just because there are so many French New Wave films in the Criterion Collection (and by extension the classic and arthouse cinema cannon), but also because there are so many important films that were either influenced by or ended up influencing the French New Wave. Today’s film falls into the latter category, as it wasn’t a huge hit in Italy or internationally when it came out, but it was championed by the critics at Cahiers Du Cinema that would soon start directing movies of their own. It also must be a film that had at least somewhat of an impact on Italian cinema, since it’s hard not to think of Antonioni’s L’Avventura while watching the couple at the heart of this story aimlessly search for meaning against the backdrop of coastal Italy.
The voyage in question is more of a humdrum vacation that sees a married couple from England, Alex and Katherine (played by George Saunders and Ingrid Bergman), visiting Naples in order to sell a villa that they inherited. As we see them both driving across the countryside and having a few encounters with locals, it becomes apparent that Alex and Katherine’s marriage has become a bit strained, as the more sarcastic, cruel nature of Alex has become grating for the more sincere Katherine. Much of this is spurred by Katherine’s reminiscences of a former lover who she knew in Italy before he passed away.
At a certain point, the couple’s passive aggression towards each other becomes too caustic to handle, so they separate and wander around Naples with little hope of reconciling things. Alex ends up on the island of Capri and spends the night with another woman, while Katharine spends much of her time looking at the art and architecture of Italy’s past and becoming weirdly emotionally invested in it. The two of them meet back up again and agree to a divorce, though are then invited by a friend to an archaeological dig at Pompeii, where they are affected by the images of the bodies entombed in the rubble. They then get caught up in a Catholic procession flooding through the streets before they whisk themselves into each other’s arms and make admissions that you wouldn’t assume were coming considering how irreconcilable Katherine and Alex’s relationship has felt throughout the whole movie.
Journey to Italy is the kind of film that after having just seen it, I’m already curious to watch it again. For one, because I’m not sure I was always able to get locked into its leisurely pace and the way it very slowly decides to form a plot as the main couple’s relationship becomes more fraught. Additionally, the film’s ending makes you want to revisit each scene and ponder whether beneath all of this contempt was an underlying love there or if they’re just kidding themselves. Additionally, trying to cram in these Criterion reviews while on vacation perhaps wasn’t the best mindset to be in while watching a film that places some effort on the viewer, but then again, no viewing of a film happens in a bubble.
That said, I didn’t really find the film’s cool, detached style to be all that alienating. I think that’s due to the fact that director Roberto Rossellini keeps the film from ever feeling too indulgent, as its English language version runs 85 minutes and the scenes are always fairly concise. My only other experience with Rossellini is his landmark Rome, Open City, which kickstarted the Italian neorealist movement and heralded in a period of Rossellini’s work that was marked by films about war and its consequences. Journey To Italy — the third of Rossellini’s feature film collaborations with Ingmar Bergman — sees the director taking an approach that is more similar to the Hollywood melodramas that defined Bergman’s years before meeting Rossellini, but also feels a bit more personal.
Even in Rossellini’s desire to get away from his war movies, Journey to Italy nonetheless feels like a story shaped by the aftermath of war. Alex and Katherine feel like the kind of couple who got married in the years preceding World War II in the hopes of forming some sense of normalcy after a period that completely ravaged Europe, regardless of whether or not they actually loved each other. It’s hard to parse much in the film that comments on the way that the U.K. handled the post-war years compared to the Italians, but there is plenty of culture clash differences between the English and Italians throughout. Rossellini has said that this was intentional, as he wanted to show the differences between people from Northern and Southern Europe, and Alex’s stated disdain for the frivolity of their vacation and his desire to get back to work is a prime example.
I mentioned earlier how Voyage to Italy influenced a lot of films from the 50s and 60s, but due to its very modern style of storytelling, it also reminded me of a lot of more recent films. It’s hard not to think of the sheer volume of road movies telling the very intimate story of two people’s relationship, but it also was hard not to be reminded of Marriage Story, as it similarly tells the two-sided story of a marriage falling apart. Journey to Italy conversely focuses a little more on the woman in the relationship, possibly because Rossellini was married to Bergman at the time and seems very in tune with the specific energy she brings to the screen. Since Bergman and Rossellini were no longer in the honeymoon phase of their 7-year marriage, this just adds another layer to how much the viewer can dissect and pick apart this relationship as you can’t help but wonder whether Alex and Katherine’s relationship will inevitably run its course, much like Ingrid and Roberto’s did.