Running time: 4:06:00
Director/Narrator: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Turner Classic Movies
I’ve chosen a documentary to kick off Film Moi because it is my favourite form of film, particularly when you get something that either takes you to a place you’ve never been before, or when it sheds new light on something you thought you knew.
Being a film dork, I am much better versed than the average bear when it comes to the history of Italian cinema. Thanks to my years of wasted youth in dark art-house theatres in Atlanta, I had a good working knowledge of Fellini, Visconti, and Antonioni’s body of work before I hit my early 20s. I had also seen numerous other examples of Italian filmmaking over the years, such as Umberto D and The Bicycle Thief, but apart from Fellini I had never bothered to actually study these filmmakers, or take in the overall concept of Italian cinema as a whole. I just thought they made either great foreign films (such as Cinema Paradiso) or enjoyably bad ones (like Danger Diabolik!).
If I went to the finest film school in the world, and spent as much money as possible on it, with all the finest teachers, I still could not have gotten one-tenth the education in Italian film I got for free courtesy Martin Scorsese and Turner Classic Movies’ presentation of My Voyage to Italy (now broken up into two mini-docs for TV viewing).
On my first viewing of the doc (when in premiered back in June of 2002), I was so astonished at what I was seeing I could scarcely comprehend the magnitude of it. The best teachers are always the people with the most passion for the subject, and here Scorsese proves this rule by doing a brilliant job of parsing his way through the history, starting with a lengthy look at the roots of Italian cinema in silent pictures (that era itself the subject of a different documentary!), right through the war years, the postwar and experimental fifties and sixties pictures and leaving us teetering on the brink of the mid-60s with Fellini. He devotes a luxurious amount of time to showing key scenes from a huge number of films, but is rarely obtrusive with his comments — and in fact his commentary is minimal, just enough to put the viewer in the proper mood or arm them with a key piece of knowledge, and then let their own imaginations and the scenes themselves take them the rest of the way — the exact opposite of most film teachers who over-explain and bore their students.
By gathering these disparate films together, Scorsese manages to accurately recreate the cumulative impact his viewings of them — mostly from his youth on a tiny black & white TV with bad reception — had then and have now on his own filmmaking and his love of cinema. More than anything else, that part comes through from the softspoken director loud and clear — he is passionate about movies, not just Italian ones (he did an earlier but somewhat less effective homage to the American films that have influenced him called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, but that doc should be considered a dress rehearsal for this one).
After a longish beginning detailing his own personal history as the son of immigrant parents (a reprise of this tale is the subject of yet another doc, Italianamerican) Scorsese recovers with a well-done but too short look at Italian silent movies before moving on to examine the work of Roberto Rosselini, clearly one of his favourite directors (and father of Isabella Rosselini, possibly the most glamourously beautiful movie star ever). While I had boned up on the Italian silent era thanks to a doc a couple years back at the Florida Film Festival, the Rosselini material was largely unknown to me and of great interest.
Most interestingly, Scorsese spends considerable time pointing out a major influence in the form of a TV show –episodes of a show called “Paisa” (“Paisan”) that were mandatory viewing in the Italian-American neighborhoods of New York where Scorsese grew up. The gritty, realistic style of the show, he argues, influenced not just him personally but had an effect on filmmakers of the time (in addition to being like a slightly-fictionalised mirror of Italian life for those who had emigrated away, itself a powerful influence). Not many film directors are personally honest enough to admit the huge effect television has had on their own filmmaking. It is fascinating to see these clips and then realise that Scorsese has sometimes used them shot-for-shot (or at least message-for-message, atmosphere-for-atmosphere) in his own work.
We then move on to Rosselini’s film work, including Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero) and Voyage to Italy (Viaggio In Italia). When we get to the surreal Flowers of St. Francis, the groundwork for Last Temptation of Christ becomes painfully plain.
The second hour is mostly devoted to Vittorio De Sica and Neo-Realism. Long, uninterrupted scenes from The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D are shown to illustrate not just how De Sica’s stories, but how he tells them — how he manipulates the audiences’ attention to small things, or makes entire movies out of “small” things. How he makes us care about the lead characters, how the atmosphere becomes an inherent part of the story, how De Sica uses his own love of cinema to create great cinema. For Italians and much of the rest of the world, this was among the first times that the art of filmmaking rose above the functionary level and became part of the tale being told itself. This was new. This was interesting.
Recognising that few people who view My Voyage to Italy are all that familiar with the films being presented, Scorsese does a brilliant job condensing the essential plot points down and trickling them out like breadcrumbs as we watch the clips … he is leading us subtly but effectively to an appreciation of the film even if we can’t see the entire thing.
In Part Two (or the second half), we finish up with De Sica and head towards the Italian directors most (older) Americans might be familiar with — the trio of Antonioni, Visconti, and of course Fellini. I’ve heard it said that Scorsese plans to do a further documentary outlining and analysing post-1963 Italian cinema, but that’s as far as we go here.
Where I find this documentary most engaging is in Scorsese’s unerring choice of pivotal scenes — sometimes pivotal by plot, but more often by style — and his willingness to divulge plot points and climaxes. It takes little away from seeing the original film “cold,” and acknoledges that 95% of the people lucky enough to see this doc have either already seen many of the films in question, or are never going to see them (in complete form, anyway). So often does Scorsese take a scene or a moment from a film like Guazzoni’s Fabiola or Visconti’s La Terra Trema and really make you feel it — not only does the story leap off the screen, but the director’s intent and technique as well. As an introduction to the art of film appreciation, you could hardly do better than this documentary.
Michaelangelo Antonioni gets something of a short shrift in My Voyage to Italy compared to directors Scorsese was more influenced by, but not before he takes some serious time to thoughtfully dissect Antonioni’s most interesting contribution to what was then being called “New Wave” filmmaking in other parts of Europe: the mind-blowing inventiveness of L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) and L’Avventura (The Adventure) which remain today extremely challenging films.
Scorsese spends his last 45 minutes or so looking closely at Federico Fellini and his awe-inspiring vision of cinema as it’s own art form. Like very few before or since, Fellini paints a complete but jarringly different world in his later work, but bringing out the rarely seen early films such as I Vitelloni and La Dolce Vita show in a stunningly well-done fashion how Fellini grew and changed over the course of his career.
Indeed, my only complaint with My Voyage to Italy is that a few other important Italian directors who were active in the same period (most notably Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci) are completely unmentioned. Perhaps Scorsese intends to give their work more attention in his planned sequel, but it’s a shame that they were left out.
Somebody other than Scorsese probably needs to do a documentary examining the works of less artful but still important Italian directors such as Sergio Leone and Mario Bava. I get the feeling that spaghetti westerns and campy farces are not Martin’s cup of tea and didn’t influence him (as much as they perhaps should have).
If you’re looking to expand your horizons in film (be it Italian cinema or not), if you’re interested in a good primer on the history of cinema d’Italiano, if you’re a filmmaker who needs tips on how to make really compelling, unforgettable movies and want to learn from the best, or if you’re just someone who would like to see some pristine examples of film as art — few documentaries will take you to the heights of My Voyage to Italy.
My rating: Compulsory Viewing