At the end of “My Voyage to Italy” (Il mio viaggio in Italia), Martin Scorsese says that his intention has been to express his love for Italian cinema and to get young people interested in these classic films, not as boring “film history,” but through hearing someone recommend them with enthusiasm. Hopefully the latter desire will be as fully fulfilled as the former in the television and video sales of this exhilarating four-hour documentary. Incorporating a somewhat reworked version of the 90-minute preview “Il dolce cinema” that was screened at Venice in 1999, it is Scorsese’s heartfelt love letter to Italian movies up to 1961. A final docu is promised in the series, which will deal with subsequent filmmakers like Pasolini, Bertolucci, Bellochio, Sergio Leone and Mario Bava. Meanwhile, film buffs will find the current pic a splendid memory aid to 30 Italian classics, incidentally furnishing, along with the director’s “A Personal Journey Through American Movies” (docu and book), priceless insights into Scorsese’s own life and work.
Known as a dyed-in-the-wool cinephile and outspoken fighter for film preservation, Scorsese asserts early on that he is “neither an Italian nor a Hollywood filmmaker” and that “it seems all cinema is secondary to American movies.” “Viaggio” goes a long way to refuting that idea.
Though the films that he covers are basically those in the classic Italian canon with few surprises, omissions or eccentricities, the thing that makes this pic fascinating, above and beyond its subject matter, is the way he notes the effect each film has had on his own artistic vision.
Looking into the camera, he recounts how he saw many of these pictures as a boy in New York’s Little Italy on his parents’ 16-inch black-and-white RCA Victor TV set. Despite the terrible viewing conditions and cut prints, the magic and emotion of postwar Italian movies came across to him as it did to his grandparents, immigrants who recognized the old country in neorealist films. These movies, directly portraying the reality of postwar Italy, were at the opposite extreme from another genre he loved as a boy, Hollywood Westerns, with their simple stories and unreal fantasy.
Italian films also catered to the imagination, though in more complicated stories, in epics like “Cabiria” (1914) and “The Iron Cross” (1941) and “Fabiola” (1949). What struck Scorsese was the texture and detail of these films, rooted in an ancient culture and so much more convincing than their Hollywood counterparts.
During and immediately after World War II, neorealism burst onto the screen in seminal films like Luchino Visconti’s “Ossessione” and “La Terra Trema,” Roberto Rossellini’s “Paisan” and “Open City,” and Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” and “Umberto D.” Scorsese dedicates a leisurely introduction to each of these important directors and their work leading up to their masterpieces. De Sica was a movie star in the 1930’s “white telephone” comedies, Rossellini made war movies under Fascism, and Visconti metamorphosed from idle aristocrat to Marxist after working for Jean Renoir.
Instead of racing through a hard-to-distinguish slew of interesting movies, Scorsese and his collaborators (including the historic screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Raffaele Donato, Kent Jones and his regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell) make the wise if difficult decision to go into fewer films in greater depth. This gives the neophyte ample time to absorb the plot and highlights of the pantheon pictures.
Throughout the film, Scorsese points out the historical connections of the pictures to their time. Neorealism, in his words, demonstrated once and for all the power of movies to effect change in the world, as the postwar Italian film industry “resurrected” the country and demanded the world’s compassion for a defeated people.
Another strong undercurrent is the back-and-forth influence that American and Italian directors have had on each other; for example, the influence of King Vidor on Rossellini, of Chaplin on De Sica, and Italian filmmakers on Scorsese. Federico Fellini’s 1953 “I Vitelloni,” which he strongly identified with, inspired “Mean Streets.” It’s fascinating to hear him pick his favorites: Rossellini’s 1954 “Voyage to Italy” and his other films with Ingrid Bergman; Visconti’s 1954 “Senso,” where he “works through total artifice as a way to the truth”; Fellini’s 1963 movie about a film director searching for a subject, “8-1/2.” Scorsese calls “8-1/2” his “touchstone” and says it is “the purest expression of love and cinema I know of.” In this way he brings the classics alive, connecting them to the present.
The docu concludes with a look at the difficult work of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose radical departure from conventional filmmaking is brilliantly elucidated here in a way anyone can understand, with close-up readings of “L’Avventura” (1960) and “L’Eclisse” (1962).
The long list of film clip sources at the end suggests the enormous problems that the Italian producers Mediatrade and Paso Doble had getting rights to excerpt 30 pictures.