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Critic’s notebook

‘Journey to Italy’: When the heart doesn’t have its reasons

George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman portray an estranged couple killing time around the Bay of Naples in “Journey to Italy.”

George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman portray an estranged couple killing time around the Bay of Naples in “Journey to Italy.”

If “Before Midnight” put you in the mood for movies about romantic relationships on the rocks, don’t miss Roberto Rossellini’s heartbreaking 1954 meditation on the subject, “Journey to Italy,” playing this weekend at the Brattle Theatre. But you might not want to bring along someone you love, because you could end up leaving the theater alone.

Like Linklater’s “Midnight,” Rossellini’s film follows an estranged couple, the Joyces — Alex (an impeccably sad George Sanders) and Katherine (a wrenchingly bereaved Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini’s then-wife) — as they kill time in various spots around the Bay of Naples while awaiting the sale of a villa left to Alex by his fondly remembered, though not by him, Uncle Homer.

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This “journey” is no fun for anyone, including, for a time, the viewer. The two drive about and bicker, take lodgings in a fancy Naples hotel, bicker some more, ignoring the ubiquitous music and singing that always seem to drift in from off screen. “I’ve never seen noise and boredom go so well together,” sniffs the supercilious, miserable Alex. Indeed, the word “bored” pops up in the dialogue about a dozen times in the first 10 minutes of the film. Nor is Katherine any prize, as she keeps reminiscing about a poet she once knew who died, apparently out of love for her, a motif drawn perhaps from a story by the couple’s namesake, “The Dead,” by James Joyce.

No wonder the two spend so much time apart. Alex heads solo to the island of Capri, where he courts a lame woman who turns out to be married. Then he picks up a woman in the street who charms him by noting that her friend just died, and if he didn’t ask her into his Bentley, she would have jumped into the sea. Katherine, meanwhile, isn’t making out much better, topping off her tour of the local museums with a visit to the catacombs.

What’s their problem? They talk a lot about what they’ve lost, but say nothing about what they had. Nonetheless, the ancient ruins and present-day bustle of their surroundings keep thrusting metaphors in their path, objective correlatives not just of their own difficulties but those endemic to all who have tried to cling together in the face of chaos, loss, death — and boredom. Their journey climaxes at the ruins of Pompeii, where archeologists find the remains of a couple in the same embrace as when they perished in the Vesuvius eruption.

Fittingly, the film itself was not easy to make. Sanders hated the production and his costar. Rossellini was flighty and non-communicative and usually broke; during the prolonged shoot his estrangement from Bergman intensified and the two would divorce in 1957. Sanders, himself a survivor of a marriage and divorce to Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor both (though not at the same time), would commit suicide in 1972. His note, unsurprisingly, read, “I am leaving because I am bored.”

“Journey” went bust at the box office when the studio finally released it, audiences perhaps finding the punishing trip too reliant on the imitative fallacy. However, the film’s initial difficulties give way to growing pathos and a nascent transcendence, evoked by the rhythms of confrontation and solitude, in which the characters’ petty squabbling somehow evolves into a kind of serenity and awareness. For this subtle transformation, credit the actors. Their faces at times eclipse the landscape in mystery and beauty. Also their tyrannical director, whose borderline abuse was instrumental in achieving such performances.

Nonetheless, from this misery and petulance endured in a haunted, monumental setting, a masterpiece emerged. Like the casts of lovers dead for millennia in the ruins of Pompeii, it is an artifact of the tormented, indomitable power of love.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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