Is Journey to Italy the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I don’t know if you can “spoil” a romantic film. The lovers are in love. We need to establish that to talk about this one because the ending is critical to any discussion of the merits of Journey to Italy.

Thirteen minutes before the final frame of Journey to Italy, one of the lead characters tells the other they want a divorce. It’s a firm, final statement after over an hour of misery that was very obviously leading to this moment. It’s not a “spoiler” to tell you this and it’s not surprising when it happens. If anything you feel relieved in this moment, as it is said that no divorce is ever really sad because it means two people are finally honest with each other.

The last ten minutes or so whip away from the direction the entire movie has been heading and the characters reconcile, very nearly literally at the last second. “Are you suddenly getting sentimental? Listen, Katherine, we’ve been honest with each other up until now, don’t let’s spoil everything,” George Sanders says to Ingrid Bergman in a traffic jam as they try to leave Italy to head home and get divorced. There are roughly 200 seconds left in the movie when this line is delivered. “I despise you,” she says, and she shakes with fury at the lack of romance, the lack of passion he displays even in the face of this nuclear option. They have a change of heart, incredibly, and that’s that.

The first time I watched No Country for Old Men I had to leave the room during what I thought was a slow moment but turned out to be the ending. It blew me away because I expected something else. That’s a masterpiece and a movie I’ve seen a lot since, but it was really shocking that they chose to end with a quiet moment in a kitchen with some ends still loose. Journey to Italy does not appear to be a movie that would give you the same kind of whiplash, and yet, here it is.

Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy is part of the Italian neorealism movement. The charm is intended to be everyday stories about everyday people, where you can see yourself and the world you move around in outside. It’s the story of Katherine (Bergman) and Alex (Sanders) trying to unload some real estate and get out of Italy after a brief vacation. They’re leaving as soon as they get there, with an opening driving scene to set this up as a road movie but some frustrated conversation about laziness and sloth to establish that this is not a fun trip.

Alex is deeply unlikable. I mean deeply. He hates Katherine, it seems, and Rossellini goes to great lengths to make sure we understand that he works all the time and he’s a big bore. There’s a fun scene where he tries to get more wine from an Italian woman because he “isn’t used to all these sauces” but aside from that, nearly every line he says is an insult or a deflection. Sanders never really sells him as a leading man, but he’s got an impossible task given how negative the character is.

Katherine is more interesting. She talks about a poet who passed away and wanders around museums and landmarks in search of something, anything, that might connect her to the world. She finds it to varying degrees. We spend most of our time with Katherine after a few scenes to establish their crumbling marriage. If there’s any joy at all in Journey to Italy, it’s in these moments of Bergman trying to understand this strange place with so much history.

Crowds and critics hated it in 1954. It was recut several times and also released as Voyage to Italy and several other names. Rossellini said that people tried to sell it as a commercial film and didn’t understand it. A.O. Scott said in The New York Times that even the leading actor didn’t seem to understand the point, and he said that as part of a quote from Sanders about audiences not understanding it! No one seems to “get” this movie enough for the judges of what is great. It’s become a masterpiece now and French critics at the time said it was a turning point in cinema.

I think this is a test. There are classics that you aren’t going to like and there are some you will. If you watch everything on the great lists, you will be influenced by their placement on said lists and you will inflate them, invariably. But sometimes you watch something that’s “great” and just don’t click with it. It’s frustrating and it tends to make you think the problem is with you. But I don’t think so.

I don’t like Voyage to Italy and I think the ending is absurd. Every critical analysis I’ve found of it has to grapple with that. Critics call it “surprising” or, yes, even “absurd.” These characters don’t just not love each other, they hate each other. They have nothing in common and we have no reason to suspect that they feel any tenderness at all. I have to assume this is the point and it’s a grander statement about how we deal with each other and how we live our lives. I’m certain I don’t “get it” enough for A.O. Scott, but it left me tremendously cold.

The coldness is interesting, though. It’s remarkable to work through a story that seems predictable and then to swerve at the last second, even well beyond what any reasonable viewer would consider the last second. I don’t buy it at all, and I’m fascinated that it seems like you’re supposed to. If the point was that this is a beautiful lie, that would be something. But I’m not sure it is. It’s all part of a kind of filmmaking that doesn’t care much for traditional plot. Almost nothing happens, but almost nothing needs to. It’s a feeling more than a story.

One critic I saw suggested rewatching the movie after you know that love wins out and finding how the characters come to that conclusion. This feels like work, but I tried. I still don’t see it and I don’t know that it’s there to be seen. I’m interested in the feelings that Rossellini wants me to feel, but I can’t help but feel like the love story that it’s all grounded in is a little too weird. I know that’s not the point, but it’s hard not to see the movie happening in the middle of all of this ennui.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Husbands and Journey to Italy have a lot in common. The people are miserable and they travel to try a change of scenery to improve their circumstances. In both cases, interestingly, the people who need change the most seem to know this isn’t going to work. These are physical movements but they are disconnected from the emotional shifts that will actually address what’s wrong. Neither film is for me, but I do think Journey to Italy will stick with you longer and is more interesting to consider.

Is it the best movie of all time? It is really interesting that audiences didn’t like this until critics told them it was important. That’s not unheard of, obviously, but I think it’s really noteworthy in this case. People watched this and didn’t like the people or the story they acted in and that, usually, is that. But with Journey to Italy, we’re told that this is seminal work and it’s important in all these ways and you’ve got the paper of record saying even the people who don’t get it don’t get it in some secondary, additional wrong way and it all turns into something more. I think it’s okay for film to be challenging and for you to have to work to love something, but I don’t think the work pays off in this case. It’s worth seeing to see how it makes you feel, but I don’t think it’s the unquestionable, perfect time capsule that the critical consensus seems to think it is.

You can watch Journey to Italy for free on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max or Amazon. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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