Roberto Rossellini's 1953 Journey to Italy has faced a long climb from its initial status as a flop and (for the most part) critical failure to its present status as one of its director's most revered and iconic films. Upon release in Italy, it was widely considered the work of a has-been who had erred by turning his gaze from the working class and the chaos of post-World War II Italy to a married pair of upper-middle-class tourists (George Sanders, Ingrid Bergman) traveling through Naples.
But the Italian critics who attacked it at the time — on grounds the director should have kept on making neo-realist films — didn't understand that Rossellini's sensibility was closer to that of later artists like Bob Dylan or David Bowie, who would specialize in frequent shifts in style and approach. After all, he began making films celebrating the military and financed by Mussolini's government, then turned anti-fascist when World War II ended.
Journey to Italy tracks the ups and downs — mostly downs — of a marriage on the rocks. By this point in Rossellini's life, his marriage to Bergman had landed him in the gossip columns; in America in the early '50s, he may have been more famous for it than for his films. Sanders' and Bergman's characters clearly aren't used to spending so much time together, and the strain of their travel brings out the flaws in their relationship. Much of the dialogue seems to be improvised: Indeed, the film has a deliberately spontaneous quality, heightened by stunning black-and-white cinematography, that helps account for the initial incomprehension of critics who saw it as haphazard.
The future Nouvelle Vague filmmakers of Cahiers du Cinéma knew they were seeing a landmark, however, and Jacques Rivette in particular rose eloquently to its defense; Martin Scorsese took up its cause later on as a personal favorite. Its influence can be seen in recent films about couples thrown together and forced to live out the contradictions of their relationships, among them Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy and Richard Linklater's Before Midnight (see story on p. 62). But the opportunity to experience Rossellini's original firsthand shouldn't be missed.