Sunday, 14 March 2010

Journey to Italy

Synopsis: English couple Alex and Katherine Joyce (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) visit Naples to sell the villa of a recently deceased uncle. The trip sounds the death knell of their marriage, as the wife (Ingrid Bergman) attempts to re-live a pre-marital love affair with a now dead poet.

I had read much about this film in Laura Mulvey's book on time and film Death 24 x a second. The couple's trip is used as a way of exploring the problems of their marriage and director Roberto Rossellini (whose own marriage to Ingrid Bergman was on the skids) rejects convential narrative in favour of slowly revealing the feelings of both husband and wife through a series of seemingly benign scenes.

In stark contrast to a film like this is Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road. Both stories of marriages in peril, Rev Road falls down with both overracting and with a slightly over the top, dramatic ending. How many films about couples can you name in which you see their feelings and motivations slowly and undramatically revealed and then end on an ambiguous note?

Apparently, Rossellini used improvisation to achieve an uncomfortable, awkward feel between the lead actors. I wasn't sure if it was just stiff acting or something else but, especially with George Sanders, this technique ensures that both characters come across as people unable/unwilling to ever express their true feelings.

During the opening scene, Katherine states to her husband that their trip will be the only time since their wedding that they have spent time alone. She says this with almost a surprised air, maybe only realising it herself at that moment. This is a story about a marriage in crisis, past the stage of the cliche of Relate counselling, set in a time when relationship therapy was usually done whilst drunk and angry rather than in the psychologists' offices.

As such, there isn't much cod psychological language used between the couple. They simply state their unhappiness and decide what to do about it (divorce). In a scene in which Alex returns to Naples from a visit to Capri (to party - wink, wink - unsuccessfully), we see Katherine in the villa at night, waiting up for him. When she knows he is in the house, she anxiously switches her lamp off and pretends to sleep. We can see this as her displaying concern for his whereabouts but I think it says more about the delicate line that can be drawn in marriages/long term relationships when your perception of your importance to the other person is that you no longer matter. This is often reciprocal but without/before coming on as all Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, there can be a time when you are no longer secure in your position as spouse who waits up late and welcomes/admonishes your partner as they come home late. Things have changed and there is much dishonesty as we see Katherine's anxieties and how she hides them from Alex.

There are also several tip top moments in which we see Katherine driving around Naples. We see her talking to herself, verbally abusing her husband. I loved these bits as they were so honest (at least for me). We all have a go at our partners when they're not around, talking to them directly about all the things they do wrong. The sad thing is that for Katherine the time has passed for her to think of nice things to say about her husband.

The climax of the film (for me) takes place at Pompeii (a coincidence that we're talking about a violent eruption kept at bay for years that finally destroys people). Immediately after deciding to divorce, the couple are taken to view an unveiling of the plaster casts of two people (a man and woman, husband and wife) buried alive in the Vesuvian lava. As the earth is carefully brushed away to reveal the likenesses beneath, Katherine is overcome with emotion. It is at this point that so much comes together: the couple knowing that their marriage is dead and that they are in some way looking at themselves, and that, like the archaeologist unearthing the bodies, they are finally revealing their true feelings to each other that have been buried for too long.

This scene had me blubbing like a loon. It is without melodrama, and in this dry, raw and honest way, Rossellini rips open many a lie about marriage to reveal the truth - that many people sit dormant in dysfunctional relationships far beyond their 'natural' end and in many cases marriages end not because of big events such as infidelity but that it is often a case of there being a hair's breadth between staying together and splitting up.

As the scene continues, and as Alex and Katherine make their way back to the car, the accompanying music swells and the camera pulls out to a wide shot of the couple walking away I honestly thought Rossellini was about to end the film here. For a few moments I felt genuinely shocked, not believing that a director could be so cruel to both story and audience. Howevever, as the film continued to its actual conclusion I wondered if this would have, in fact, been the perfect ending. A truly crushing blow to any hope for happy resolution.

Memory and how we try to resurrect the dead
Much of the story is taken up with following Katherine as she re-lives a previous love affair with a soldier poet. We find out very little about her ex-lover and we come to understand her feelings about him through watching her visit museums, churches and tourist attractions. These visual clues help us build up a picture of Katherine's poignant attempt to re-live memorable moments with this lover. Her memories of her time with him, however brief, are all she has and this revisiting, replaying of significant events allows her to wallow in her still strong feelings.

As the lover is dead, it would be impossible for Katherine to actually replay meeting him or even moving their story on. All she has are the poems he wrote and the times they spent together. I found these scenes incredibly moving and sad, speaking as they do of something that can never, ever be regained by Katherine (or by any of us?)- her brief experience of what she believes was true love, or certainly a truer love than the one she has with Alex.

These scenes are crucial in illustrating the strength of memory versus the history of actual events. We never see Katherine with this man, we have no idea what he thought of her and so we can only go on her memories and re-enacting of previous events. This highlights how our memories are so fragile - we may have very strong rememberances of old lovers but how true are they? Did we really mean as much to that ex-lover as we hope, pray, felt at the time? Or, is the re-living of beautiful memories a way of strengthening the good parts, and trying to weaken or even block out the reality of it not working out.

Whilst watching this film, I was reminded again and again of James Joyce's short story The Dead. This story tells the tale of a married couple (Gabriel and Gretta) who go to a Christmas party with friends and relatives in Dublin. At the end of the evening and when the couple are preparing for bed, Gretta (set off by discussing a song) is overcome with memories of long dead ex-lover. As Gretta relays the story to Gabriel, she sobs and after she is asleep Gabriel thinks how strongly his wife must have loved the young man, and how he himself has never felt the same way about anybody.

Both Katherine and Gretta's memories are of love affairs cut short by death. The very nature of 'unfinished business' means that for both of them, memories are key. As they never got to test out a marriage with their former lovers, they are destined to replay what might have been. To use the cod psychology so loved by modern marriage counsellors, neither find 'closure' and that is what makes The Dead and Journey to Italy so emotionally devastating.

The film ends with Alex and Katherine getting caught up in a street procession in their car. Katherine gets out to walk and gets swept along by the crowd. As she is eventually reunited with Alex, there is ambiguity as to whether or not they will divorce. They still love each other in a way but surely this is just a last ditch attempt to salvage a non existent relationship.

A Journey to Italy is an adult, intelligent story of a marriage as it ends. Rossellini does not patronise his audience with trite messages or a happy ending. Instead he gives an honest account of the daily struggle many married folk face in reconciling their memories of past/potential loves with the reality of life with the spouse they have chosen.

See also: The Dead, Revolutionary Road

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