Faces in the crowd: the ending of Journey to Italy

An apparently random shot at the end of Rossellini’s 1953 film encapsulates the director’s egalitarian vision

Journey to Italy (1954)

Although Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, 1953) is now established as one of world cinema’s supreme achievements, it still has a surprising number of detractors. I usually advise cinephiles who have trouble ‘getting’ the films Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman to list all the things they perceive as flaws, then try to see them as misunderstood virtues.

Take Bergman’s performances, which seem so much clumsier than her Hollywood roles. By stripping away the actress’s standard repertoire of gestures and line-readings, Rossellini revealed the genuine person usually concealed beneath the mask of technique. It says a great deal about our relationship to cinematic codes that many viewers consider Bergman’s acting in these masterpieces to be ‘unrealistic’.

Even the crude dubbing has a positive function, preventing us from experiencing the films as professionally packaged entertainments whose rough edges have been smoothed away. Like the characters who are drifting aimlessly, the actors who were not given screenplays and the director who allowed the film’s structure to be determined by chance, we are obliged to enter into an improvisational relationship with the work, becoming active participants in the construction  of meaning rather than passive consumers.

Journey to Italy focuses on a British couple, Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex Joyce (George Sanders), visiting Italy to sell some property they have inherited. Their marriage is on the verge of collapse and they have just agreed to divorce when, in the film’s sublime final sequence, they find themselves in a town (Maiori) where a religious procession (an actual event into which Rossellini inserted his cast and crew) is taking place.

Journey to Italy (1954)

Unable to drive through the crowded streets, the Joyces are obliged to leave their car, that shell which has protected them from too intimate an involvement with the people of Italy, and begin walking. Suddenly, cries of “miracolo” are heard and we see a man walking away from a wheelchair: a cripple appears to have found the ability to walk (though the way he keeps touching his eyes suggests he may have been blind and recovered his sight) – a genuine ‘miracle’ Rossellini was lucky enough to catch on camera.

As various individuals struggle forward to get a better view, Katherine is pulled away from Alex, who runs after her. The couple embrace and the camera pans away but just as we think the film is going to end with this conventional closing shot, Rossellini abruptly cuts to a seemingly insignificant ‘documentary’  detail: several members of a band standing near a wall while participants in the procession walk past. This shot lasts 18 seconds and concludes with a fade to black as the camera, for no apparent reason, starts panning to the right.

Tag Gallagher, in his 1998 book The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, claims that the bandleader “smiles knowingly at Alex and Katherine” but it seems to me that this ‘character’ remains oblivious of the couple. The suggestion is not that star performers are more important than ‘extras’, but rather that these anonymous musicians have as much right to our attention as Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. And Journey to Italy’s mixture of documentary and fiction functions in much the same way. Where Haskell Wexler showed the stars of Medium Cool (1969) interacting with actual rioters in order to make a point about the real-life events, Rossellini does precisely the opposite, allowing real-life events to make a point about the relative importance of his stars.

So what seems to be a clumsy flaw, a poorly thought out decision to end the film with a randomly selected image, proves on closer inspection to lie at the heart of Rossellini’s vision, in which the rough is always preferred to the smooth, incompleteness to resolution, involvement to contemplation. If Alex and Katherine are guilty of using their car’s windscreen as a protective barrier, we are just as guilty of using the cinema screen in the same way. Like the Joyces, like the actors who play them – like Rossellini – we must overcome the barrier of ‘fiction’ and experience the external world, flaws and all, without mediation.

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