Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 influential film, Journey to Italy, is adored by many critics and moviegoers alike. Though the film did poorly at the box office, it is now considered a modern classic, inspiring numerous future filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese. The film explores the idea that many marital issues result when one marries out of convenience instead of love.
The film documents the deteriorating marriage between Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alexander (George Sanders), during their trip to Italy after Katherine’s uncle dies. The couple soon becomes aware of their emotional incompatibility once they’re finally alone together, and decide to spend the whole trip apart from one another. Katherine, fueled by the romantic memories of her late friend and possible lover, Charles, visits many romantic historical sites in the area. Alexander attends parties and contemplates cheating on his wife. Towards the end of their trip, the two decide to divorce. However, a near-death experience of Katherine convinces the two of them of their perceived love for each other, and they decide to remain married.
A significant indicator of their incompatibility is their contrasting personalities. Katherine is the more sentimental and romantic of the two. She is easily moved emotionally, and fixates on the saccharine nature of love. For example, when she sees the skeletons of lovers who died together in the volcanic eruption in Pompeii at an archaeological site, she immediately starts to cry. The idea of the couple embracing each other until death is too much for her to bear. Additionally, she sees Charles as her model for her ideas on love. His perception of love is full of sentimentalism. She is easily enchanted by his poems, many of which describe love and beauty in flowery language. She seeks for this memory of Charles, and is thus drawn to the museum he describes in his literature.
Alexander, however, is the complete opposite to Katherine. He is only concerned with work and duty, and does not wish to engage in Katherine’s romanticism. As for his opinions on Charles, he sees Charles’ poems as foolish and unnecessary. He does not understand what value Katharine derives from them.
These contrasting personality types are the source for their marriage troubles. However, the two of them do not become cognizant their own incompatibility until they spend their first time alone with each other since their wedding night. Before the trip to Italy, Alexander had traveled on many business trips without Katherine. Even when they were together, there were always other people around. With this new environment, it is obvious that the two of them married only out of business convenience, as opposed to love.
It is only at their time alone with each other when they realize each other’s faults: Katherine is too sensitive and Alexander is too unemotional. Katherine’s sensitivity is shown through her attachment to Charles. Her excursions to the art museum and the ancient cavern to emotionally connect with Charles are clear indicators of her growing further apart from her husband. She does not offer to take Alexander with her. She instead seeks out for her romantic fantasy, despite knowing that such a desire will never be fulfilled.
In this mindset, Katherine analyzes Alexander’s cold nature, and sees him as a “brute,” too prideful and self-assured, and cynical. Alexander, meanwhile, accuses her of being too sentimental and sensitive. Due to his emotional detachment, she also has trouble reading his emotions. When she confronts him about this issue, he tells her that she never understood him. Despite this claim, he doesn't seem to try to bridge that gap. He seems content with their lack of mutual understanding.
Their emotional differences culminate at the end of the film, when the two of them witness a religious parade. Alexander is disguised by such a display, wondering aloud: “How can they believe in that? They’re like children.” Katherine responds: “Children are happy.” This exchange is significant because it shows how differently they think: husband views the event more practically, cynically retorting what he considered to be a useless activity. The wife, however, interprets his statement in a naive light by focusing on her perceived innocence of children. It is this divergence in emotional processing that drive them apart.
On top of their differing personalities, neither are able to articulate their feelings to the other. For example, when Katherine spends the day upset in the house, and Alex comes home, she is secretive and wants to see how he reacts, as opposed to being upfront about her feelings. Another example of Katherine’s passive-aggression is her desire to have children. The idea of pregnancy makes her sensitive. She wishes for a sentimental future with children (even though she doesn’t want children), but is stuck in reality with an uncommunicative husband. She never relays her feelings to her husband, and just assumes whether or not he would want a child.
Despite the interesting themes explored, I did not enjoy the film. It was not very engaging, and did not have much conflict. Marital instability and lack of communication are present in many relationships, and thus are fascinating to analyze. However, these ideas have been explored more compellingly and thoroughly in other films, so I felt that I did not gain much emotionally by watching Journey to Italy.
The main complaint I had about the film was the limited interactions between the two leads. The more compelling parts of the film for me were when the two of them are together, so we see how they communicate. However, most of the film has the two of them in separate locations. This is makes it difficult to identify and understand the conflict between them, and thus makes the film harder to watch. For example, when Katherine accuses Alexander of being a “brute” while she’s driving alone, there’s not much emotional resonance, because we hadn’t really seen a time in the film where he acted like that. And further, even when Alexander is alone, there’s not much we learn about him and his perspective on the strife with his wife. He’s jealous when he sees her having fun with the other Italians, but it’s not stated where this jealousy comes from, why it’s significant, and how that jealousy affects their relationship in the long term.
What I especially didn't like was the film’s ending. During the religious parade, Katherine temporary becomes separated from Alexander in a large crowd. This threat of danger makes the two of them suddenly realize their apparent love for each other. This reveal was not established at any point in the film, and felt to me like a cop-out from their previous decision to divorce. Their proclamation of love undermined what I felt Rossellini was trying to establish all throughout the film, that a synthetic marriage, packed with a substantial lack of communication, can lead to emotional strife.
Perhaps such a jarring tonal shift could have been intentional. Could the ending be signifying that Katherine and Alexander had deluded themselves into thinking that they actually love each other? Was this ambiguity the point of the ending? If so, I did not find it to be satisfying as much as just confusing and unnecessary.
Despite these faults, I still find much to admire about the film. The acting is excellent, the premise is interesting, and the film makes a wonderful use of location. Thematically, the film makes an interesting point: differing personalities between couples do not necessarily foreshadow future emotional conflict. Couples who think differently can bond very well. However, in this case, Katherine and Alexander’s contrasting personalities lead to their eventual divorce because they did not spend time alone with each other exploring their differences. They didn’t understand each other or the origins of their respective motivations. It is this lack of communication that sets them apart.