Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Journey to Italy (1954)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #41

There comes a point in every celebrated filmmaker's career that they "sell out." It could be making a major Hollywood film when they were best known for their challenging indies, or it could be trying their hand at a genre that's radically different from what they've done before. Whatever it is, their defenders and fans decry the move, arguing that the filmmaker has sacrificed their creative integrity for the sake of making money. At best, the resulting film is treated as a misstep or a cash-in; at worst, it's career derailment, an artist losing his soul with no hope of ever regaining it. In other words: the best case is David Lynch, the worst case is M. Night Shyamalan.

Roberto Rossellini, by the early 1950s, had established himself as one of the premier voices of the Italian neorealist movement. Predating the French New Wave, the neorealist movement favored amateur performers, working-class characters, and small-scale stories. Rossellini made his name with Rome Open City (1945), which claimed the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (the predecessor of the Palme d'Or) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. He continued to build his international acclaim until he committed a cardinal sin within the movement: in 1950, his film Stromboli starred none other than Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman. It kicked off a long-running collaboration between the two (they would be married, too, and had three children, including Isabella Rossellini), almost all of which would be commercially and critically unsuccessful in their time.

Journey to Italy committed even more neorealist sins than Stromboli had. In addition to casting Bergman, Rossellini cast Hollywood star George Sanders as her husband, the two of them playing an upper-class English couple coming to Italy to evaluate an estate left to them by a recently-deceased uncle. Yet despite all of this, French critics such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard - both of whom would become filmmakers themselves - hailed the film a masterpiece.

So how did such a radically un-neorealist film become heralded as "the first modern film?"

More after the jump.

The film's plot is a fairly standard melodrama. Alex (Sanders) and Katherine (Bergman) Joyce have been married for several years, and their marriage is falling apart. They have travelled to Naples to sell an estate left by Alex's deceased uncle, and the trip has taken its toll. Alex is caustic and sarcastic, wanting to get in and out of the country as fast as possible so that he can return to his work. Katherine, on the other hand, wishes to explore the sights, the landscape bringing up bittersweet memories of a poet she had known years before. Both Alex and Katherine are pessimistic about their future together, as their marriage continues to be pushed to the breaking point.

However, the film doesn't play like a traditional melodrama. The first noticeable tweak on expectations is that, despite the title, the film opens with the Joyces already in Italy, driving toward Naples. Rossellini frames one of the central problems of their marriage without ever spelling it out in the staging: Katherine is driving the car, with Alex in the passenger's seat. Alex complains that he is bored, whines about the trip, then finally demands that he drive instead. In Rossellini's composition, Katherine is in a dominant position by virtue of driving - she is in control of the vehicle's direction - while Alex is relegated to the subordinate position of passenger. It's evident that being idle - being passive - irritates him, and thus he asserts himself by taking over driving duties. Rossellini has therefore illustrated their marriage's core issue: Alex needs to be in control, and refuses to allow himself to be considered subordinate.

It's a fight that plays out repeatedly throughout the film, with their jealousies and resentments playing out along this same narrative. Rossellini highlights the gulf between them without ever directly addressing it: when Katherine reminisces about her poet friend, Charles, Alex grows irate and demands that she stop being so romantic. However, when Alex perhaps enjoys himself a bit too much around Marie (Maria Mauban), Katherine stews in her jealousy, not speaking up until she cannot contain herself in privacy. The power struggle in their relationship is evident in every one of their scenes, and Rossellini draws attention to it whenever he can.

The ending, then, may be the most subversive element of the film. After visiting the ruins at Pompeii, where they witness the plaster cast of a man and woman who were instantly killed in the infamous eruption, Alex and Katherine find themselves stuck in a procession through the streets of Naples. They reach the point where both are prepared to proceed with divorce when Katherine is overcome by the crowd, who are hailing a supposed miracle that has occurred. Alex rushes to Katherine's aid, and they again declare their love for another before the fade to the ending card. It's interesting that Rossellini correlates their sudden reversal of thinking to a "miracle," especially given everything that the audience had seen before this moment. It seems that he is hinting that this is only a temporary rekindling of their romance; the foundation is still weak, and Rossellini doesn't frame it as a completely happy ending.

It would have been easy for Rossellini to make the film a traditional melodrama, to truly "sell out," but he places his own stamp on it, making it a unique creation. As a result, Rossellini earned a major following among French critics and filmmakers, to the point that he is considered a major influence on the French New Wave. Director Martin Scorsese listed Rossellini as a major influence, to the point that he titled his autobiographical documentary My Voyage to Italy. And, naturally, Journey to Italy earned a spot on Sight & Sound Magazine's "Top 50 Films of All Time" list. His neorealist films made Rossellini a major filmmaker. But "selling out" made him a legend.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Pather Panchali (1955)

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