‘Journey to Italy’ and the Other Side of the Hollywood Sunset

By  · Published on January 22nd, 2014

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they visit Pompeii, Sorrento, Naples and Capri alongside a husband and wife who are on the verge of no longer being husband and wife.

In the #41 (tied) movie on the list, Roberto Rossellini directs his wife Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as a foreign place shows them their true natures, intentions and the idea that they may merely be strangers after all. For its generic title, Journey to Italy is anything but.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Landon: So we know Ingrid Bergman for her amazing work in WWII-era Hollywood ‐ her unforgettable turns in Casablanca and Notorious, for instance. Journey to Italy was made during Bergman’s 5-year “exile” from Hollywood after the controversy surrounding her out-of-wedlock childbearing with Rosselini. Not to resurrect old Hollywood gossip, but I wanted to start our discussion by emphasizing how these circumstances produced something we haven’t seen on this list so far: a film with a Hollywood talent onscreen and a European arthouse talent off-screen.

Not to mention George Sanders.

Scott: Another Hitchcock alum. Gossip aside, happenstance is a great opening for a conversation about Journey to Italy because a lot of stars had to align in the story to get the end result. I suppose that’s the case for any film with something fragile at its center (or any disaster movie).

Landon: It’s pretty strange to see two Hitchcock alums in a film that, for most of its runtime, so unambiguously challenges the idea of Hollywood-like love and happy endings in marriage. Imagine if this were, say, a sequel to Notorious, where we see how Bergman and Grant’s coupling worked out down the road.

Scott: There is a palpable sense early on that Alex is going to strangle his wife and leave her in a volcano pit to spend the rest of the film evading the Italian police through forehead-dampening dialogues in locked rooms.

Landon: That’s true ‐ very Suspicion.

Scott: So this is a Hitchcock movie without a murder, and without a normal man confused for a spy.

Landon: And the unrelenting mystery of a relationship at its center.

Scott: There’s definitely something dark and sinister to it.

Landon: It also feels like a bridge between David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, in terms of films that decisively portray marriage in a stark, unromantic light.

Scott: That’s specifically because of Alex. I’m unclear even now as to what attractive qualities he has as a mate. Maybe because his flirtations feel like old man fantasies more than genuine care or charm. Although there’s a hint of underlying romance when he suggest they start over as strangers in the beginning.

On the other hand, we have to assume by the way he and Katherine talk that there was a time in their relationship that was magical and sweet. We basically have to trust her. Which isn’t really hard.

Landon: Even though we spend roughly equal screen time with each of the, this is clearly Katherine’s story: we infer that such a time existed because we’re experiencing her loss, her sense that something is missing that has brought them to this breaking point. And I agree. Bergman does a great job at wearing that assumed history on her face.

Scott: Few actors could have pulled off what Bergman did here. Particularly because she spends so much time alone (and alone with strangers). I imagine the script saying, “Katherine bears the entire fraught history of their complicated relationship on her face.” The kind of thing actors hope for, despite only rarely being up to the task. She’s in this without a net.

Landon: “Katherine subtly endures existential crisis during yet another morbid tour.”

Scott: “Katherine relives the worst of her husband’s taunts silently, imagining internally a life without him as she drives through the streets.”

And, action!

Landon: It’s difficult to play ambiguity, but Bergman does it in spades. In fact, her role feels strangely conversant with the other Italian films we’ve seen: she seemed to set the stage for more abstract existential crises in Antonioni’s and Fellini’s films. But in those cases, it wasn’t a Hollywood star brooding about a perpetually dissatisfying life.

There aren’t many films that do this. But when they do, they feel like they’re working subversively against Hollywood’s rules of romance and toward something more potentially relatable and authentic ‐ the reality that marriage and happiness are not synonyms. Marriage is not portrayed here as, in of itself, an achievement that marks a definitive beginning or end, but a life of changes and work and experiences and ebbs and flows with one’s spouse.

To put it mildly.

Scott: That’s why I appreciate the ending. Yes, there’s a jarring element to seeing two caustic people soften at the sight of a religious march that randomly blocks their car, but them ultimately ending up together feels genuine in the face of how rocky loving relationships can be. You’re right that this is the other side of the sunset that Hollywood rom-coms ride off into.

Landon: And it’s really in that moment that you realize how much Bergman accomplishes in the film by the way her performance suggests their history; even though all we see of Alex is him being an ass, and then deciding not to cheat, we assume this is a marriage worth preserving, that there is a rich history of love to return to, simply by her performance. I have no idea what old Alex was like, but I believe he’s back by the end. And no offense to George Sanders, but that’s mostly a credit to Bergman.

I’m not sure that many other single performances speak with so much depth for two characters.

Scott: Sanders seems to exist in this movie to allow Bergman the room to quietly explode. Alex’s not cheating is one of those happenstances we mentioned earlier ‐ if the girl on crutches’ husband wasn’t coming back, this movie might have ended very differently. Same goes for about a dozen other things that fell into place, and normally that would injure a story, but the movie celebrates the flow of being in a foreign place early on (and even bases their new relationship discovery on being alone outside their comfort zone). That leads to Katherine not simply being alone or feeling lonely, but being stranded.

Although it might be nice to have a guy whose sole job it is to interrupt a relationship-ending converstion by yelling at us to come to Pompeii, quick! It would apparently save a lot of marriages.

Landon: Come quickly! Something happened 1,800 years ago!

I also love the tour of Roman leaders’ violent murders of their loved ones. That’s a real “give your problems context” moment.

Scott: Sarcasm is the greatest cross to bear, Landon.

Landon: But let’s talk about that ending a bit more, because I think it’s really fascinating. There are two parts to it, one being the shock they endure of witnessing the remains of people at Pompeii, specifically a couple, then the other is the public mass you mention. Each of these endings alone could give you a different motivation for their reunion, but the fact that they’re juxtaposed together is quite interesting.

Scott: Sure ‐ if the movie had ended after the Pompeii mold-making, it might have been far more ambiguous. We’d have gotten to see a spark at the end of the tunnel without knowing that they’d reignite their passion.

Landon: On the one hand, life is short and relentless so be with the ones you love (which can be interpreted as an athetistic ending) and then have a great spiritual awakening (a theistic ending).

Scott: It makes it seem as though something always needed to shake loose in Alex. Something to make his Grinchy heart grow three sizes. Who knew it was going to be a religious parade in Italy? Tough for a marriage counselor to call that one.

Landon: That George Sanders has always been an especially tough egg to crack.

But then again, they don’t show the moment on his plane ride home where he says, “You know, I really miss being petty.”

Scott: Right. How soon until this couple throws in the towel again?

Landon: But as simple as it sounds, the key to this ending seems the fact that they’re experiencing something together. Whether Pompeii or the spiritual demonstration, there is a third thing in their lives that prevents them from continuing to fixate on the other by micro-managing or trying to avoid the other entirely. They’ve been locked in this cave of arguments and frustration that, yes, “shaking loose” seems right. It manages to feel like a rekindling without giving up to the Hollywood ending. It’s not saying, “well, now the happy ending begins.”

Scott: And I said what about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?…

Landon: [cymbal crash]

Scott: After all the lonely site-seeing, and Katherine being the only one to explore (he says business, she says pleasure), Alex gets with the exotic location and experiences something. It’s not a happy ending so much as another chance. Maybe they’ll divorce within the week, maybe they’ll push beyond the rut. Even with the embrace at the end, it still feels wholly open-ended.

I’ll admit that this movie is an excellent example of pushing through. At least for me, I wasn’t expecting to like it by the 20-minute mark or so. Then it builds and builds and builds.

Landon: I agree. The subtle accumulation of their tensions really catches up with you by the end. Not many films really earn that breaking point, but it really did feel before those final moment that this is something that cannot sustain. It is a very suspenseful film in that regard, and beautifully disorienting when transitioning from small fights that portend big marriage issues to these frank surveys of ancient history. When you don’t have tours that show you the unforgiving, vast history of a world of which you are a very small part, it becomes easy to forget what, and who, is important.

Again, it sounds like a simple message, but it’s one few films are really able to address, much less tackle adequately. Rossellini’s film has a quiet brilliance to it, due in no small part to Bergman’s amazing lead.

Scott: Alex has some odd behavior at first ‐ mooning over another young woman in front of his wife ‐ that you have to trust in to be illustrative of their marriage and perhaps her subservience. But the turning point was when he states flatly that he’ll to go to Capri without her, and she ends up in a car talking to herself, brooding and angrily stating that she won’t get angry.

It’s an amazing moment where the movie opened up, maybe because it revealed itself to be about her more than him.

Landon: And that’s the point where we first really see Katherine transparently, outside of this social performance. The Bergman movies were a big break in contrast to Rossellini’s earlier work ‐ a neorealist working with a movie star in a movie about a couple of rich tourists negotiating over an inheritance ‐ like Dylan going electric, some even interpreted it as selling out. But what this movie reveals, in part, is how much pressure this rich couple must put on themselves to perform in front of other people: stale conversations, making typical tourist plans, with the flow of wine used as an intoxicating escape, not a social lubricant. They say anything besides what they mean. The movie is perhaps deliberately flat up until that moment where, at least between character an audience, Katherine becomes transparent to us while Alex carries on in deliberate oblivion and superficial escape.

Scott: Do you find it interesting that she remains alone while he’s the one who goes gallivanting?

Landon: I think it illustrates her subservient position. But in allowing us to stay with and to understand her character, it seems she’s the only one having a real experience that we identify with. Like her, I felt alienated from Alex throughout. Those tours feel less like diversions as the film goes on. How many movies portray tourism as a profound experience without going the route of Eat Pray Love? The moment you mentioned seems really critical ‐ it makes or breaks this film.

Scott: I found myself on her side, irritated at the brusque (and fairly crappy) tour guides. But she’s surrounded by so many wondrous things that provide context as you mentioned, but also that evoke a variety of emotional responses. Few films highlight tourism that way, and even fewer use shots of antiquities to prod the audience toward feeling what the main character is feeling. The largeness of that Hercules statue, the shocking eyes of an ancient bust.

Landon: The film seems intricately designed for the exact character identification we both experienced. It really is a story about a marriage embodied by one person. Occasionally interrupted by a tour guide yelling at us to see if we can hear the echo.

Scott: Or a long-dead couple being preserved.

Next Time: Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou

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