There is no more fitting occasion to watch Roberto Rossellini’s underrated classic Journey To Italy (Viaggio in Italia) than this year’s Cinema Arts Festival Houston. Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of the Italian master and the film’s star Ingrid Bergman, will be presenting the 1953 film at the Rice Cinema, which was developed under the guidance of the elder Rossellini in 1971.
Before going into the film, it is essential to mention the personal history between Bergman and Rossellini, which was one of the most storied romances in Hollywood and the international film community. It was 1949, after being discovered by legendary producer David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind) in her home country of Sweden, Bergman had became a major star in Hollywood with hits such as Casablanca and Notorious. Rossellini, on the other side of the Atlantic, spearheaded what would become the Italian Neorealist movement with his gritty and powerful portrayal of World War II in Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946). Bergman, a great fan of the Italian’s work, wrote him a letter about her interest in working with him. In response, Rossellini cast her in the lead role of Stromboli (1950), where they fell in love with each other during the production. Each married to someone else at the time; their relationship became a huge scandal, leading to Stromboli’s financial failure and the U.S. Senate denouncing Ingrid Bergman.
Three years later and married with three children, Rossellini and Bergman made their third film together— Journey to Italy. Gradually, Rossellini had distanced himself from the dramatic intensity in his earlier films. Journey to Italy revolves around a British couple, Alexander and Katherine Joyce (played by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) traveling to Naples for the sale of a dead uncle’s house. Their problematic marriage takes a turn for the worse as the pair drifts apart during their stay. Early scenes involve the pair trading condescending snipes and their contempt for each other frequently ends their conversation midway through. Rossellini shows little interest in offering explanations and leaves it up to the viewers to interpret these open-ended scenes.
Knowing the personal background between Rossellini and Bergman, one can’t help but speculate the unspoken autobiographical nature of Journey to Italy since the film seems to have foretold their eventual divorce in 1958. Coincidence is unlikely the only reason that both Bergman’s onscreen and offscreen husbands are characterized by their thinning hair and tailored suits. Sanders’s Alexander is a burned out husband who looks for female attention time after time as he gives up on dealing with his marital discourse, which mirrors Rossellini’s relationships-ending affairs. Katherine, on the other hand, takes advantage of her trips to enjoy the local flavors, yet she finds herself resentful and jilted everyday. In theory, Bergman’s Hollywood background is in total contrast with Rossellini’s preference for nonprofessional actors and a naturalist style. But the great Swedish actress was not your typical pretty face starlet and she adjusted very well to Rossellini’s directing style (the very reason she wanted to meet him in the first place). Acting in a Rossellini film could be a challenge for any studio actor because the director often came up with the dialog on the same day of the shoot. For Journey To Italy, Rossellini went as far as to conceal the script from Sanders and Bergman, leaving them confused and frustrated, which was practically what he wanted them reveal in front of the camera. The result is one of Bergman’s finest performances— a solemn and brutally confessional married woman in disarray.
Following the volcanoes in Stromboli, Rossellini continued his incorporation of the surrounding terrain in his work. Katherine’s visit to the sulfur springs paints an eerily beautiful picture of a disillusioned woman who is as confounded by the earthy mystique as she is by her personal turmoil. Excursions to the historical burial and the Pompeii ruins heighten the characters’ sense of disenchantment and alienation— a theme his peer Michelangelo Antonioni would revisit in his career. The interrelatedness between the dread of death and the hope for miracles hits a nerve in Katherine, which Rossellini refrained from defining for his audience. He pushes the envelope even further with the film’s climatic ending where Alexander and Katherine reach their breaking point in the middle of a religious parade. For a film that has been so austere and introspective, the ending seems oddly sentimental and conventional. Perhaps Rossellini is simply showing how the couple is only swept away by the moment and things can still turn out very different after the credits roll.
MY DAD IS 100 YEARS OLD
Before the screening of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, his daughter and actor Isabella Rossellini will pay tribute to her father with the short film, My Dad is 100 Years Old. Written by the younger Rossellini and directed
by Canadian director Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg), My Dad is 100 Years Old was made in 2006 for the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the elder Rossellini.
Isabella Rossellini has acted in Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music In The World and recorded the voiceover for Brand Upon the Brain!. Maddin’s silent-film inspired aesthetic is a perfect match to Rossellini’s enigmatic presence. Rossellini, who has directed the oddly hilarious animal-sex reenactment short films, Green Porno, shares the same charming sense of humor with Maddin, who also loves to mix in some melodrama into his black-and-white nightmares.
Roberto Rossellini is no stranger to defying expectations and conventions— his works were ahead of his time and he was never swayed by commercial or critical pressure. The 16-minute short highlights the defiance of the Italian auteur, who is personified by a big fat jiggling belly, in a series of riveting and witty debates between him and other cinema legends in the likes of David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin (as seen on our cover) and Federico Fellini— all played by Isabella Rossellini (with a fitting impersonation of her mother Ingrid Bergman later in the film). The Italian neorealist pioneer is not the only one to popularize the use of on-location shooting, handheld camera, nonprofessional actors, working class stories, but his biggest legacy is undoubtedly his relentless pursuit of new frontiers for cinema. His thirst for refining his craft and breaking new grounds paved way for generations of daring filmmakers— the seminal French New Wave would apply Rossellini’s principles in full force on while its way to take over the world in the 1960s. My Dad is 100 Years Old is a love letter from an admiring daughter, a gift to Rossellini die-hearts and a wonderful introduction to those who have just begun to dig into the cinema of Roberto Rossellini.
Journey to Italy and My Dad is 100 Years Old will be playing at Rice Cinema on 11/11 at 8:00 pm. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston will present An Evening with Isabella Rossellini on 11/12 at 7:00 pm. My Dad is 100 Years Old is also available for online streaming at www.mubi.com