The two characters at the centre of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, seen in a restored print at the BFI Southbank, are so nasty to each other in their half-polite way that you long for them to flare up, throw things, become violent, turn the film into the melodrama it seems to want to be. They don’t, though. When they agree to divorce it’s as if they were ordering a meal in a restaurant they don’t like; and when they embrace at the end of the movie in a notional reconciliation, a rediscovery of their supposed affection for each other, it’s even worse. As long as they were angry they were at least alive, or nearly; now they just seem deluded, trapped in a happy end they can’t want.
The characters are Alex and Katherine, George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman. They have come to Italy to sell a property they have inherited from the person they call Uncle Homer, a man who appears to have had the gift for enjoying himself that they so conspicuously lack. The property is a house near Naples. They drive down in their Bentley – they are supposed to be English although Katherine has picked up a Swedish accent from somewhere, Hollywood movies perhaps – and stay in the house, meet a few locals, one set of which consists entirely of caricatured aristocrats. Alex goes to see friends in Capri, toys with the idea of having an affair, but is too lethargic and depressed to get anything going; he picks up a prostitute and just drives her around in his car for much the same reason. Katherine visits the local sites, a museum full of statues, boiling lava near Vesuvius, a catacomb full of skulls, the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl. She is disturbed by the visible fertility of the Italian women on the streets – there don’t seem to be any who aren’t pregnant – and she remembers a poet she once knew who had a few platitudes to offer about death and ruins and the like. But her heart is not in this romance with reminders of time and mortality any more than Alex is really going to go philandering. All she knows or cares about is her own bewildering unhappiness and the small pleasures of snapping at Alex now and again. Alex for his part is too busy being bland to recognise how unhappy he is – he no doubt believes he is just bored – but he is pretty good at snapping too.
All this comes across so clearly because neither of these actors is all that comfortable in the roles they have, and their ineptness begins to look like a truth about the marriage. What Rossellini has understood – and what turns this distressing story into such a satisfying film – is that he can use the movie pasts of Bergman and Sanders, Casablanca, Gaslight, Spellbound and All about Eve, for example, and the fact that they are not going to become anyone else, as a way of placing aliens in a neo-realist Italy. It’s not that they are fake and the world they visit is genuine, although one could be forgiven for thinking at first that this was the set-up, and they do try to shake off their movie past to some degree. Bergman is angry and rigid as well as vulnerable, Sanders occasionally looks as if his suave manners might conceal a jot or two of tenderness. But they settle into basic imitations of their old selves, and this is what Italy is doing in the film as well. A couple that can’t change meet a country that for all its intimations of life is riddled with the sight and memory of death. There’s a kind of music in this encounter, and Rossellini allows us to hear it by making sure that nothing really happens. As Godard, a great admirer of the film, once said, it shows what you can do with just a man and a woman and a car – and a religious procession or two and the excavations at Pompeii.
The liveliest figures in the film are the tour guides Katherine meets on her excursions. They talk about antiquities as if they were proselytes of the past, eager to take the whole world there, and the great set piece of the movie shows the past literally emerging from the ground. Alex and Katherine, together for once, visit Pompeii during an actual dig. Their friend explains that where the archaeologists suspect there are bodies, or may once have been bodies, they pour liquid plaster into the ground through small holes, and allow it to solidify across the empty space into the shape of the bodies. They then brush away the soil to reveal not corpses but casts of corpses. As Alex and Katherine watch, two casts appear, a man and a woman close together, arms and legs outstretched, imitations or refractions of a couple surprised by death. This is too much for Katherine, who turns away with a kind of sob. But what has she seen? She has seen herself and Alex and their marriage, of course, but then what has the image told her? Any interpretation here is going to be a little gross, and Rossellini is too discreet to give us any help. I want to say she has understood not just that her marriage is dead but that it was always dead, a matter of grotesquely gesticulating mannequins hanging out next to each other. There is no way back from this insight, and this is why the film’s ostensibly comforting conclusion seems so full of denial.
At this point we are closer to Rossellini’s earlier films, like Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero, than we may have thought this domestic non-drama could bring us. ‘The war’ is mentioned repeatedly: we hear who died in it and what people did in it, and it seems to preside over the present world as if it had ended only yesterday. Every bit of ordinary life we see in the movie, everything that isn’t ritual and remembrance of ancient history, seems provisional and lost, as if a task of reconstruction were being permanently postponed or even forgotten. This feeling is diffuse but it’s very strong, and it suggests that the relation between the private life of the English visitors and the public life of the locals is not one of contrast but of modulation. It’s a matter of being stuck, however different the styles. Many critics have said this film is about its settings rather than its people; but in a way they are the same thing, pictures of a mental and moral condition that would be too bleak to live with if it hadn’t become a habit and a shelter.
‘With the appearance of Journey to Italy,’ Jacques Rivette wrote in 1955, ‘all films have suddenly aged ten years; nothing is more pitiless than youth, than this unequivocal intrusion by the modern cinema, in which we can at last recognise what we were vaguely awaiting.’ ‘We’ were the critics and directors associated with the New Wave, and Truffaut’s 400 Blows was only four years away. But what was so modern about the Rossellini film, and why did it seem so young? The answer, I think, has to do with the refusal of the apparently inevitable melodrama – how could there be a journey without change or redemption? – and again, with the transposition of Hollywood actors into a world that has left them stranded. The next step was not to get rid of actors, but to get rid of actorly actors, and let the camera find the figures in the film, catch them when they weren’t looking, and hadn’t yet had time to enter the luxury of legend. This way even bleak tales could be full of energy; the energy of looking hard rather than the easier optimism of represented success. Journey to Italy is full of delicate notations of this kind. Virtually every mean remark made by Bergman or Sanders is preceded by a silent, visible, quickly repressed motion that almost made them say or do something kinder. Then the meanness prevails. The story is hopeless, but only, the movie suggests, because hope is hard work, and the opportunity for it swiftly passes.