De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D maybe among the most famous examples of Italian neo-realism, but the films of Roberto Rossellini parade the ideals of the movement more assertively and politically. They proclaim loudly an inversion of the thinking behind the idea of Hollywood: stars, glamour, sex appeal, intrigue, elaborately spun out drama, and an arc of moral redemption. In their place, they substitute ‘real life’ documentary, protagonists conscripted off the street, and the social problems of post-war Italian society: poverty, political corruption and alienation, loneliness, prostitution, suicide.
It is an interesting paradox therefore, that the director later – and controversially – married one of Hollywood’s most coveted stars, and cast her in a film alongside another Hollywood veteran.Journey to Italy, very much ‘starring’ Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders (famous as the acerbic theatre critic, Addisson DeWitt in All About Eve), is a simple chronicle of a marriage in turmoil, forced to re-examine itself by its encounter with a foreign culture.
The elements and overall conceit of the film represent a clever twist in the logic of neo-realism. It is a story entirely constructed inside the idiom of Anglo-American culture. It has Hollywood stars, playing moneyed members of bourgeois English society. They speak about Italy in haughty north-European clichés (greasy food, swarthy, untrustworthy, superstitious and ill-educated). The relatively simple narrative even provides a clear moral framework. But in this case, the redemption is constructed to challenge the assumptions of the culture to which it speaks.
What starts out as mutual griping on their road to a home inherited from a ‘wayward’ uncle, quickly turns into conjugal crisis. Abstracted from a more familiar environment, Alexander Joyce (George Sanders) becomes progressively more irritable, sneering over the steering wheel at anything and everything. His wife, Katherine, only exacerbates his irritation by obstinately liking the country. Soon they are looking for new partners to share their separate beds.
Except it doesn’t quite work out. They remain foreigners, and their peculiarly north-European bent of mind means that they are never quite congruous with the company they want to seduce or by which they want to be seduced. Rossellini, who deprived his actors of details about the script and shooting location, helps to ensure that they are left floundering and frustrated. In so doing he repeatedly denies them comfort in the country they are visiting. Where both are looking for some kind of self-understanding, or a perspective from which their visit can be interpreted, this is never granted.
The ‘journey’ through Italy therefore runs in parallel with a journey which gradually erodes their self-understanding. Only by exhausting this bristling conceit of themselves does the film force the characters to acknowledge their relative naivety and innocence, and only at that point can they achieve reconciliation.
This final act of redemption happens in the middle of a religious carnival. Alexander, with his wife once again in his arms and still unable to quite relinquish his condescension, remarks that the locals appear to be behaving like children. ‘But children are happy,’ replies his wife. It is a comment that instantly bounces back on them, as if to say that, try as they might to appear otherwise, they too are like children, and only by facing up to it, might they rediscover the happiness that will keep them together.
The film leaves the couple partially lost, clinging to each other while swept along in the noise and disorder of the crowd. This visual summary of its portrait, puts a bow around the overall story in a way that completes the self-subverting gesture towards Hollywood. Where Rossellini’s earlier films pit themselves against the dream factory by self-consciously doing the opposite, Journey to Italy unravels the Hollywood myth from within. It achieves a ‘happy ending’ by humbling its characters rather than through an all-conquering act of vindication.
It maybe a moot point – albeit an interesting one – to consider how Journey to Italy plays compared to the more ‘realist’ documentary-style pieces that preceded it. Does a simple story with stars (and in particular Ingrid Bergman) make it more accessible and engaging? Does this mean that films that want to be considered as morally and politically significant must make some concession towards more popular styles? Or more fundamentally, what does this say about audiences, and the thematic aspiration of art-house cinema? Can the vaguely defined and disagreed-upon ideals of the latter be understood except through some concession to their – by definition – more prosaic audiences? And does aesthetic compromise mean that all ideals are therefore, to some extent, unattainable? And if so, should all ‘idealistic’ films think more about their audiences?
Whatever the answers, Journey to Italy, for all the director’s staunch opposition to Hollywood, suggests a use of narrative and film-making convention that might satisfy artists and audiences.