Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Maria Mauban, Anna Proclemer, Paul Muller, Leslie Daniels, Natalia Ray, Jackie Frost, María Martín
Written by: Roberto Rossellini, Vitaliano Brancati, based on a novel by Colette
Directed by: Roberto Rossellini
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: English, Italian
Running Time: 83
Date: 09/01/1955

Journey to Italy (1953)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Ti Amo

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Cahiers du Cinema called Robert Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia, "the first modern film." It's hard to dispute that. Watching Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders playing a struggling married couple traveling abroad, we get the sense that movies were no longer fooling around and had finally gotten down to business.

This great masterpiece was the third of five feature films that Rossellini and Bergman made together (plus one short, a segment in the omnibus film Siamo donne). The others are Stromboli (1950), Europa '51 (1952), Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954), and La Paura (1954). The legend has it that Bergman wrote to Rossellini after having seen some of his early films, and offered her services as an actress. Though they were already married to other people, they fell in love and caused an international scandal. They were married for seven years and had three children, including Isabella Rossellini.

Their body of work together is considered one of the pinnacles of cinema, with Viaggio in Italia at the forefront. The movie was a failure upon its release, and as best as I can tell, it was re-issued at different lengths, with different titles, including Journey to Italy and Voyage to Italy. Now, however, even though the general consensus has shifted, no effort has been made to restore and release the proper version on DVD in the United States, not to mention the other Rossellini/Bergman titles. Hopefully this oversight will be corrected soon.

Bergman stars as Katherine Joyce. An uncle has died and she and her husband have traveled to Naples, Italy to see their inheritance, a huge villa, and hopefully sell it. Sanders, who was probably best known for his Oscar winning role in All About Eve (1950), stars as the husband, Alex. The movie opens with Alex sleeping in the passenger seat of their car, with Katherine (Bergman) driving. This silence continues after he wakes; they can't seem to talk truthfully. They complain and comment to one another, but neither one seems to really know how to approach the other. When Katherine tells a story about an old flame, a poet, Alex dismisses the episode as "foolish."

Waiting around for some buyers to decide, Alex visits Capri, leaving Katherine at the villa. He tries to pick up a girl there, fails, and considers sleeping with a prostitute. Katherine, meanwhile, sees all the sights; the ancient sculptures and other attractions seem to lend a huge sense of perspective to her troubles, but leave her feeling sadder than before. The couple begins to talk about divorce.

The movie ends in a moving, triumphant moment, but perhaps the most poetic moment comes a bit earlier, when Alex and Katherine visit a site in Pompeii that has been newly excavated. They watch as two ancient bodies, locked in an embrace, are uncovered. The scene has a profound effect on Katherine, and then on Alex as well.

Viaggio in Italia does have a realistic look, and the scenes of awkward non-communication between the two actors take center stage. But Rossellini's skill is apparent in the so-called throwaway scenes, the sights, the locals, and the way they enter and leave the frame. Like this year's The Tree of Life, Rossellini manages to throw in centuries of history for perspective. By comparison, the problems of these two little people don't amount to a hill of beans.

At last, in 2013, the Criterion Collection released an essential box set on DVD and Blu-ray of three of the Rossellini/Bergman films (plus one short). This movie is certainly the best of the batch. It's a two-disc set that includes an introduction by director Roberto Rossellini, an audio commentary by film scholar Laura Mulvey, an interview with film critic Adriano Aprą, a short film featuring footage of the Rossellinis, a new interview with Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman's daughters, Ingrid Rossellini and Isabella Rossellini, an interview with filmmaker Martin Scorsese, a visual essay by scholar Tag Gallagher, a visual essay by film critic James Quandt, a 1992 documentary on Rossellini, a 1995 documentary on Bergman, a new interview with Rossellini's niece (featuring home movies) plus Guy Maddin's 2005 short film My Dad Is 100 Years Old.

Finally we have The Chicken, Rossellini and Bergman's short segment from the omnibus film Siamo donne, which was supposed to show a day in the life of famous actresses (it also featured Alida Valli and Anna Magnani). The Chicken is a rather slapsticky tale, which struck me oddly uncomfortable, but it's nice to have it, as it's very much a part of this filmic legacy.

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