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Roberto Rossellini - Spotlight of the Month
Remind Me

Journey to Italy

Journey to Italy

When movie star Ingrid Bergman left her husband, child, and Hollywood to work with (and eventually marry) Italian director Roberto Rossellini in 1949, she also left behind Hollywood-style movie production to adopt Rossellini's radically different approach to making films. He essentially worked without a script, counting on improvisation and inspiration to shape his films, and often cast non-actors in important roles. As Bergman later told biographer Charlotte Chandler, "In Hollywood, I was accustomed to the scripts being prepared meticulously, well in advance. Every detail was set down, every shot, every angle, every camera movement was written down on paper....With Roberto it was more like a battlefield where only the general knows what the soldiers are supposed to do." Rossellini defended his working methods, saying "A writer puts down a sentence, a page, then crosses it out. A painter uses carmine, then makes a green brush stroke on top of it. Why can't I also cross out, redo, and change? This is why a script can't be ironclad for me."

Between 1950 and 1954, Bergman appeared in six films, all directed by Rossellini, none of them commercially successful. Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954) examines the breakdown of the troubled marriage of an English couple as they travel in Italy. By the time they began filming in early 1953, the couple's personal and professional relationship was fraying under the stresses of their notoriety, the failure of their films together, and their financial problems. Finally, Rossellini secured financing for Journey to Italy from a Milanese industrialist who was a fan of his neorealist films. Hoping for an international success, Rossellini cast British actor George Sanders, who had recently won an Academy Award® for his acid portrayal of Broadway columnist Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950). Like Bergman, Sanders was used to Hollywood production methods. Unlike her, he was neither willing nor able to adapt himself to Rossellini's chaotic working style.

Rossellini's original plan for Journey to Italy was to adapt Colette's 1934 novel, Duo, about a deteriorating marriage. That was the film Sanders expected to do. But by the time filming began, the rights to the novel had been sold elsewhere. Rossellini had a loose script, but he didn't share it with the cast, instead using notes scribbled on his shirt cuffs or the back of an envelope, and waiting for inspiration to strike. If it didn't, the director would go skin diving off the island of Capri. According to Bergman, Sanders, who was having his own marital problems with Hungarian starlet Zsa Zsa Gabor, "had a series of nervous breakdowns. He was on the phone every night talking to his psychiatrist back in Hollywood." Sanders told Bergman, "I just can't go on, I can't do this commedia dell'arte, and invent my lines at the last minute." In his memoirs, Sanders was disdainful of Rossellini's methods. "My interest was reduced to a state bordering on stupefaction," he wrote.

According to Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, however, "It was all a plot....He gave Sanders no direction, no hint about his role, ever. To the contrary, he did everything he could to intensify the actor's sense of lonely isolation." Sanders stayed at a different hotel from the other actors, and the director gave the others instructions to avoid him. "'It's his role, he's supposed to be like that, tense and anguished,' Roberto explained....'It was his bad moods rather than his own personality that suited the character of the film.'"

Once production on Journey to Italy was finished, it took a year and a half to find a distributor. When it was finally released in July of 1954, it was little-seen and poorly received. In the influential Italian film journal Cinema, G.C. Castello wrote, "By this time, we've given up on Rossellini. But what is beginning to get annoying is that he has managed not only to ruin himself but he's also ruining the woman who would, not unworthily, have succeeded Greta Garbo one day." But the group of French critics and filmmakers writing in Cahiers du Cinema embraced the film. Jacques Rivette wrote, "If there is a modern cinema, this is it....It seems impossible to me to see Viaggio in Italia without receiving direct evidence of the fact that the film opens a breach, and that all cinema, on pain of death, must pass through it." In 1958, the magazine ranked the film third in a list of ten best films of all time after Sunrise (1927) and Rules of the Game (1939). Jean-Luc Godard wrote that Journey to Italy was one of "five or six films that one wants to write about by simply saying, 'It's the most beautiful film ever made'....Like a starfish that opens and closes, these films can offer and hide the secret of a world of which they are at the same time the sole repository and the fascinating reflection."

Rossellini and Bergman ended their marriage in 1957, but they always maintained a respect and affection for each other. Rossellini was philosophical about their work together, telling Charlotte Chandler, "A star cannot help being a star, and I confess that when we began making films for her, it turned out not as we had hoped, as we had expected it would. I did not make films that were right for her. I wanted her to be right for my films, but she could not reshape herself so much. Also, they were not what her audience expected from her, and they were not what my public expected from me." Their films together may not have been entirely successful, financially or artistically, but they are fascinating documents of an exciting era in international filmmaking by two of cinema's greatest talents.

Director: Roberto Rossellini
Producer: Adolfo Fossataro, Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Roberto Rossellini, Vitaliano Brancati
Cinematography: Enzo Serafin
Editor: Iolanda Benvenuti
Music: Renzo Rossellini
Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Katherine Joyce), George Sanders (Alexander Joyce), Maria Mauban (Marie), Anna Proclemer (prostitute), Paul Muller (Paul Dupont), Leslie Daniels (Tony Burton), Natalia Rai (Natalie Burton), Jackie Frost (Betty).

by Margarita Landazuri