Friday, May 10, 2013

Film Review: Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy (1954)

This review is featured in the May/June 2013 issue of Little White Lies. Journey to Italy is currently playing in a restored print throughout the US and UK.

Often credited as the first work of the modern cinematic age, Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Journey to Italy pivoted on a spirit of emotional and artistic restlessness. It’s a spirit that its director — and soon, his medium — would work toward reconciling with that of a society on the brink of technological and ideological revolution.

Like the characters it depicts, however, Rossellini’s masterpiece — playing in a restored print at London’s BFI Southbank — arrives at transcendence only by threatening a rupture in unity. Presented as a natural by-product of the neo-realist methodology Rossellini helped to coin, Journey to Italy is a film which treads this radical new path via a convergence of traditional melodrama, documentary-based intimacy and a streak of raw vulnerability prompted by the clandestine affair and eventual marriage of the film’s director and leading lady.

It stars Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as Katherine and Alex Joyce, an English couple in the throes of matrimonial discord as they travel through Naples to complete a real estate transaction. Finding tragedy in the mundane, the film idly stirs buried emotions as these two face up to the implications of an eight-year relationship that may have been built on feelings as tenuous as its narrative framework.

Rossellini’s conceptual design remains patient, his camera operating at a remove, allowing the actors to find their characters in intuitive fashion (indeed, much of the film was improvised, a practice which Rossellini gravitated toward in the preceding years).

Upon arrival, as Katherine and Alex nonchalantly acknowledge their gathering malaise, the two seem fated for strife and possible separation. They outwardly persevere, adhering to social mores even as they subtly disparage one another: him by flirting with mutual female friends; her by recounting her liaison with a former lover; both by renouncing any lingering feelings for each other. Their decision seems to have been made, their journey a symbolic rather than galvanising gesture.

Rossellini illustrates Katherine and Alex’s individual attempts at mental and emotional reconciliation through disparate actions once they’ve physically removed themselves from each other’s company. George visits neighbouring cities, pursuing  fleeting passions with a married woman before courting the possibility of paying for female accompaniment. Katherine, meanwhile, travels a more spiritual path, touring the volcanic countryside, desolate desert catacombs and, eventually, the ruins of Pompeii.

Accompanied by Alex to the latter locale at the behest of a local acquaintance, the experience of viewing entombed bodies and drawing conclusions about their past lives ultimately proves too much for Katherine, sending her careening between doubt and disdain.

Appropriately, Rossellini stages his final flourish as an awakening: as the couple attempt to navigate throngs of people enraptured in a religious procession, the interpersonal gravity — as well as the universal inconsequentiality — of their impending decision manifests as a kind of divine intervention. As it does throughout, the physical intercession of reality into the constructed drama of the film reflects a latent philosophical and aesthetic instinct in Rossellini. Put simply, in both narrative and cinematic terms, what we’ve witnessed is a miracle. [LWL]

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