The Heroine’s Journey in “Journey to Italy”

Roberto Rossellini’s half-improvised neo-realist masterpiece uses the ruins of Pompeii as an unforgettable metaphor for a marriage.

In terms of cinema history,  Roberto Rosselini’s Journey To Italy (1954) is one of the most important films you’ve never seen. The third part of an informal trilogy of Italian movies starring his wife  Ingrid Bergman – the others are Stromboli (1950) and Europa 51 (1952) – it follows an English couple (Bergman and George Sanders) visiting Naples to sell off an inherited villa, as their unfamiliar and enforced intimacy starts eating away at the fabric of their union. As he idles with other expats and their marriage proves a transient, temporary thing, she immerses herself in the ruins around Pompeii and Herculaneum, all the while feeling rebuked and chastened by the ancient permanence of everything around her.

Rossellini, the grand old man of Italian neo-realism, is the only film-maker of 1945 to hold true to its tenets throughout his creative life. Here, he redirects that ethic away from the grand social concerns and contemporary history of his postwar neo-realist trilogy – films shot, to adapt Irène Némirovsky’s phrase, on the still-moving molten lava of great and terrible events – and into the private sphere of intimacy and personal relationships. Barely scripted (much to Sanders’s annoyance), the movie was shot in a half-planned, half-improvisatory manner, and Rossellini infuriated everyone, Bergman included, by refusing to shoot for days on end when inspiration was absent.

Patience paid off, however, and Rossellini created a film whose poetry is fathomless and wondrous, melancholy and wise. Emotions and themes are displaced into landscape and environment (later an Antonioni trope). The rational and irrational are in conflict at every level, and language and imagery are haunted by death and entropy. In one searing moment, the couple, their marriage now a ruin too, are taken to an archeological dig at Pompeii and watch as a hollow place in the cold lava – where the remains of the dead have left an imprint – is filled with plaster and then excavated. A cement couple is disinterred, perhaps a husband and wife, and the guide comments, “They found death together – united.” Bergman can’t help but fall to pieces.