From the first scene, a banal drive across a beautiful Italian landscape, the attitudes are already set. You see Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) paying drastic attention to the road, busy at the wheel of the car, while her husband Alex (George Sanders) nearly falls asleep, disassociated from the foreign land around him, and already complaining about the trip’s “boredom.” They have come to Italy to deal with the inheritance of a property, but what begins as a rather drab business affair is the start of a downward spiral that questions the foundations of the couple’s marriage.
After all, the marriage, we discover, has never really been taken outside the context of its several years in England, and so the change in scenery reveals new moods and thoughts. Veils are lifted. Their conflicts have been for some time easily relayed between them, the small bickering and fake-openness fully realized now as a crutch to hide deeper-seated regret. But now those conflicts have taken a dangerous route. Everything has been leading to this point, a boiling-over, when it will all be out in the open.
Alex esteems work and duty, and does not like that Katherine’s romanticism colors her life, made evident by her romantic remembrance of a friend named Charles, a poet who wrote verse while on tour in Italy but got sick during the war and died. She goes about Naples, remembering his verse, and gazing at the museums and the catacombs and ruins, some of which he’s written about.
What’s worse than hating Katherine’s romanticism, is that Alex is unabashedly flirtatious with women, even has small liaisons with them (though he has little luck), and at the same time keeps a front of work and duty to his wife, while loathing the “slothfulness” of the Italian lifestyle he sees around him. This, also, despite the fact that he is shown many times socializing with said Italians and their lifestyle, always wanting to be around anyone else but his wife, and, hypocritically enough, getting markedly jealous if she does anything similar in experiencing the happiness of others and their attention lavished upon her.
The conflict is clear, and the distancing that the two practice is methodical throughout the film’s structure. Back and forth between them, we see her romanticizing and his fraternizing. It is almost too easy to identify the marital issues, mark out the psychology, and see the patterns; this all made easier by two characters each drowned in a blasé and wearied aura that at rare times only surfaces subtle moments of interest and jealousy and love. The effect is made more pronounced by the setting: a hot and flat Italian land, the sun always in their faces—a land gorgeous enough to lull you to its beauty, and hot enough to keep you from doing anything worthwhile, but remain helpless and trapped within it.
The film, in part, being about the end of a history, depicts two lives who must see, as the viewer sees, that the place where they have found themselves within their hearts, and their despairing feelings towards each other, is also manifested in the very place they are visiting. Roberto Rossellini does not let the viewer walk away from this film without realizing that the couple’s journey to Italy is invariably tied to their relationship. The place itself, the culture and epic history of it, the large empty landscapes and the tragedies that have accrued—that of the dead in Pompeii, of all the Greek and Roman wars and their mythic battlers, the catacombs—has folded into itself one more tragedy in a long line of them.
The two are living out in their personal tragedy what so much of humanity has already lived before. This alone heightens the sadness of their situation: it is cosmic and weighted with the deep and dark grooves of repetition. It is as if they are stuck living out the same roles of lovers from history past, which depersonalizes them. To thrust another thorn in the side, on a deeper level it questions their self identities. Who are we individually if we are only some variation of what has come before us? Their fates are set in this romance; there is a limit to outcomes. They are marked by the lives of the past, the futility of history’s lovers who have lived and felt similarly, with no way out. Even Katherine, remarking on the busts and stone statues of Antiquity’s warriors, says that they feel so close to her, that they were people just like her and Alex.
With ease, you can believe you are a variation replicating a past, hedge yourself in by history and its lovers, if you have given your whole life to a relationship, sacrificing other parts of your Self. And certainly this is what Katherine, it seems, has done. Almost a decade she has spent in this marriage, and in her romanticizing has given wholly to it. Now all she can see is the death of it, leading to death itself. In fully giving over to it, this being her life and this life ending, then the question arises what else is there? Katherine sees a funeral in the streets, eyes the skulls in the catacombs lined up against the wall, the plaster casts of two people (possibly lovers) buried in Pompeii. She intuits the symbol of her marriage’s deadness, the deeper reality that her relationship is her only life now and that she has chosen from the beginning (at one point, she even admits that she saw the red flags early on, so does he) a journey of death and vacuousness, dropping all other routes to choose this one, doing away with large swathes of who she is.
Though perhaps she has not so badly become a cliché. In some ways, her romanticism saves her. In one scene, she beautifully recounts Charles, sick with deadly fever, who came in the rain to her before she was to be wed. She was touched by his romanticism, the possible love for her he had, or just maybe by the fact that he wanted to die. But she sees in it a beauty and passion unparalleled. It is perhaps not so much that she loved Charles romantically, but moreso loved the way he lived his life. For her, Charles died knowing passion. Mingled with her visiting the history of death in Italy and the constant reminder of dead marriage, lies the subtle irony of her equally devoted to seeing this history of death, remembering Charles, symbol of passion and life, who preserved it in his art. Katherine understands moving through pain and suffering, seeing it and enduring it. Carried on within it is something else—hope. In this dying relationship with Alex, she sees there is also life, perhaps a way out, albeit difficult and hard work, and yet also a way to restore her marriage to what it was. Charles, or at least the idea of Charles, gives her this, and gives her her freedom, despite how the death (or life) of this relationship might define her. She is far more than a lover, a bitter one or otherwise.
Alex takes another way. His answer to this dying marriage is to drop it and move on. The urgent tone he makes for divorce, the bluntness in wanting it, and the energy to converse with other women, embodies more passion and power than anything else he does for or says to Katherine. His posture in wanting divorce and actions towards anyone else but his wife is an attitude aligned, in fact, with the passionate busts Katherine studies, depicting men who have done mythic and suicidal things. He is mad for easy danger, some flash in the pan of risk that he thinks won’t harm him, than he is for a life that will have its very real troubles. It is quicker and better, he thinks, to move on than to live through. Alex cannot see hope, cannot see life in the dying marriage, wants nothing to do to preserve it and looks for ways out.
Despite the tragedy unfolding, it all leads to a curious ending. They are stuck in the city, in their car, amongst a large crowd of onlookers observing a religious parade passing through the streets. At one point they get out of their car. She gets pulled away by the crowd, and looks back at him in a fright, not wanting to be separated from him. He runs after her, one of the few signs of his concern shown in the film, and catches up to her. They observe the religious parade and he remarks that it’s stupid that people believe such things, have that sort of faith. But it is of a certain faith that is needed to make this relationship work again, and the parade can only remind them of that. They turn to each other and make seeming amends. She tells him to tell her that he loves her and he does and the camera pulls away on them hugging in the streets.
Are they wrapped up in a moment of rapture based upon the sacred celebration they see around them, the steadfast faith of the religious onlookers? Have they truly realized they’ve loved each other all along, and are recommitting themselves? Hard to say. The very Italian history they have steeped themselves in carries with it as many tales of hope and life and resurrections as it does of death. But the film leaves you with questions. They each see their entire lives in marriage about to possibly end, they see death coming, and so it is unsettling, then, that they are so quickly swept back into the thing that has caused them so much despair. For Katherine, the process to reconciliation, which she has wanted, in the final moments appears too fast and flimsy, though at least it is consistent with her romanticism. Telling him to tell her he loves her isn’t very convincing. He has to want to say those words without her having to tell him. As for Alex, to be reconciled at all to Katherine has seemed so far away, and it is a wonder then if the small failures with other women has not sent him back, and with that earlier idea of work and duty carried through, to the only one that wants him still. Is he returning to ruts because it’s most comfortable?
Questions linger, but the film does well to capture issues of personal freedom and choice, while reminding us of the constant tension that we are forever linked, perhaps chained, to the past’s places and peoples and times, which have unavoidably shaped us and our present surroundings. Journey to Italy, in part, explores how the past has an interesting way of knowing more about our future than we do.
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Release Year: 1954
Runtime: 85 minutes