I had long heard about Roberto Rossellini’s classic Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954) but had never seen it, mainly because it’s never really been given a proper Region 1 DVD release. I recently was able to access a region-free Korean version (in English, with removable Korean subtitles, thankfully), and while the film is really deserving of a full treatment from Criterion, it afforded me the opportunity to finally see this great film, in which George Sanders and Rossellini’s then-wife Ingrid Bergman (identified on the back of the DVD as “George Sandera” and “Inglrid Bergman”) play a married couple whose relationship teeters on the verge of disintegration during a trip to settle some property near Naples.
Watching this film only a few weeks after seeing Rossellini’s Paisan (1946) for the first time, it’s striking how different it is from his early, more traditional neo-realist work. Viaggio in Italia strikingly looks ahead to the modernism of 1960s European art cinema—to Antonioni, Bergman, and Resnais. In tone and spirit, it feels closer to La Notte (1961) or Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) than to Rome, Open City (1945); rather than dealing forcefully with the social conditions of postwar Italy as he did in his earlier films, Rossellini here becomes introspective, ambiguous; the focus is not so much on class or nation as the individual and the couple, in all their alienation and inner pain. Even the dialogue is minimalist, oblique. And, of course, Rossellini’s use of Hollywood stars is directly at odds with neo-realism’s emphasis on non-professional actors, even if he subverts Bergman and Sanders’ star personae by casting them in decidedly unglamorous roles. Is this Rossellini’s joke—a plopping down of Hollywood actors into the stark world of Italian neo-realism? Abbas Kiarostami’s recent Certified Copy (2011) plays similar tricks on the audience’s expectations regarding national cinema, milieu, and the star.
In this sense, Viaggio in Italia can be seen as a key work of 1950s Italian cinema, the decade that saw the transition from the neo-realism of the late 40s to the high modernism that was in full swing by 1961. (Other such transitional works would have to include Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria  and the early work of Antonioni and Pasolini.) As someone who has always respected but never loved neo-realism proper, I much prefer this more meditative, abstract style. Stay tuned as I finish out this viewing project with a 1970s action classic and a cult favorite from the 1930s that as someone who wrote a series of posts on psychotronic cinema I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never seen.