The Bored Life
The story of a disintegrating marriage mirrors a famed Hollywood tryst
Published: June 26, 2013
Journey to Italy
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Plays at the Charles June 27 at 9 p.m.
Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders lounge in butterfly chairs on a patio, baking in the hot Italian sun, eyes closed, heads tilted down as if trying to nap. Bergman wears a dark-colored long-sleeved dress, Sanders a sport coat and tie. They are Alex and Katherine Joyce, a married British couple sojourning in Italy—a not necessarily welcome trip prompted by the recent inheritance, on Katherine’s side, of an Italian villa near to Naples. They are openly disinterested in each other. “It didn’t occur to me that it’d be so boring for you to be alone with me,” Katherine bitterly says to Alex in one scene.
The two film stars occupying the frame of 1954’s Journey to Italy (or Viaggio in Italia) express an overwhelming ennui, one made curious by the deteriorating state of the once-ardent romance between Bergman and Journey to Italy’s director, Roberto Rossellini, of Italian neorealism fame and a forerunner in many ways of the French New Wave. Bergman and Rossellini’s love affair—started in 1949—eventually cemented into marriage, but not before scandalizing Hollywood and the film-going public. In 1948, after seeing Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, an anti-fascist wartime tragedy, and Paisan, the episodic depiction of Nazi-controlled Italy’s liberation, Bergman, by this time a well-known starlet thanks to Casablanca and The Bells of St. Mary’s (in which she played a nun), penned Rossellini a note offering to star in one of his films, should he “need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo.’”
Their romantic relationship blossomed during their first movie together, Stromboli, which resulted in neither critical nor commercial success but did yield a child, begotten out of wedlock. Bergman left her Swedish husband and their daughter to be with Rossellini, also married. They wed. She starred in six of his films between 1950 and 1954; all of them fizzled upon release. Bergman told People magazine in a 1980 interview, “He was a magnificient director who did documentaries better than anyone else. Then he was stuck with me. I was an actress and I was used to entertaining. He tried to do pictures that would suit me. We couldn’t make it together.” (Their marriage also fizzled, in 1957.) In one sense, then, the story line of Journey to Italy reflects the initial cracks in the bedrock of one of cinema’s best-remembered love affairs—Bergman and Rossellini were Brangelina of the ’50s.
Alex Joyce, played by the supremely stuffy Sanders, his deep bass oozing pretension à la Addison DeWitt, would much rather be back in England, working and living as he is accustomed to: not spending too much alone time with his wife, Katherine. In the face of the couple’s bluntly acknowledged dissatisfaction with each other, he goes off to Capri and finds women to carouse with. Sanders’ muted turn in Journey to Italy also reflects his real-life situation. At the time of filming, his marriage with Zsa Zsa Gabor was souring, and he found Rossellini’s neorealist methods (lack of specific direction and a script, improvised lines) to be tremendously disagreeable. He avoided the rest of the cast off set. His state of mind surely reinforced his character’s isolation and dispassion. “I’ve never seen noise and boredom go so well together,” Alex says at one point while zipping through the Italian countryside. (Sanders committed suicide at age 65, signing off with perhaps the most jaded line ever inked: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.”)
Katherine, for her part, is equally detached but in a dreamier way. She wanders around the museums of Naples with elderly gentleman tour guides who show her marble sculptures and ancient caves. She dwells on the memory a deceased poet that she once knew who visited her before she married Alex. She drives alone in a Rolls-Royce around the Italian streets, cluttered with cows and carts and pregnant women, muttering angrily to herself about Alex. One feels the frustration rippling through her, frustration at a relationship without passion, of years spent with someone who has become a stranger.
Though it took over a year to find a distributor for the film and it was so little watched that the New York Times did not review it upon its U.S. release, Journey to Italy did find praise, from the likes of Godard and Truffaut and, later, Martin Scorcese. (Criterion is releasing a digitally restored edition of the film.) Rossellini doesn’t rely on action to engross his viewer, rather, the emotions of Alex and Katherine pull one through the depiction of the dissolution of romance and the struggle to regain it. For fans of old school cinema—and of the stars and scandals of ’50s Hollywood—it certainly does not disappoint.
> Email Jenn Ladd