A follow-up to his 1995 television documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Martin Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy (Il Mio Viaggio in Italia) is a thrilling trip through six decades of seminal, great and near-great Italian films so dear to the celebrated Sicilian-American filmmaker. Easing us through a rich cornucopia of high-quality, largely black-and-white clips, Scorsese, who serves as an eloquent and lucid onscreen and offscreen commentator, makes highly personal and not always popular choices. Still, even when the clips are unfamiliar, the New York-based director, whose Gangs of New York is scheduled for release early next year, conveys with passion and clarity why these films are important to him and should be to us.
Because My Voyage, which won a prestigious slot in this fall’s New York Film Festival lineup, is so personal, Scorsese affords us relevant background to his own history as a Sicilian-American who grew up in Manhattan’s Little Italy in a gregarious and proud family of movie lovers. Home movies suggest a happy, close-knit group of immigrants and their children.
His education in cinema began in the ’40s, when he discovered Italian films on the family’s 16-inch black-and-white television. The conditions were hardly optimal, but the impact was huge. As he explains, these films were how he connected with his heritage. Scorsese’s education continued in various screening rooms and repertory cinemas.
Unfolding in two parts, the documentary first explores the two major strains in Italian cinema–first and foremost, neorealism and, secondly, the epic. Scorsese’s neorealism choices are not surprising and include Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 Open City, which might have launched the movement, and his 1946 Paisan, whose last episode is, says Scorsese, perhaps the purest example of neorealism.
Scorsese’s compendium also gives us Luchino Visconti’s 1947 La Terra Trema, Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D, and wrenching performances from unknowns (young actors playing the post-war Italian street kids) and the very known like the great Anna Magnani. And there are the unforgettable sequences like that of the tuna fisherman in Rossellini’s Stromboli. Because the neorealistic classic selections were largely influenced by the horrors of the Second World War and Italy’s struggle to recover, they are generally informed by stories of poverty, despair and courage.
For a sublime example of the epic, Scorsese reaches back to the 1914 Cabiria, whose ornate and extravagant imagery easily convinces us why the film influenced D.W. Griffith. Other epic examples, also beneficiaries of Italy’s long history, include the films of directors like Alessandro Blasetti, whose works are often dreamy spectacles steeped in pageantry.
The latter part of My Voyage delves deeper into Ingrid Bergman-era Rossellini, with long sequences from such overlooked films as Voyage to Italy and Europa ’51. And it lightens up with comedies like the 1954 Gold of Naples and the operatic, stylized and melodramatic explosion of Luchino Visconti’s famed costumer Senso, also from 1954.
But the major focus of the documentary’s final two hours is the highly original works of Michelangelo Antonioni (his trilogy L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse) and Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2). Scorsese cites Fellini’s slacker-themed, coming-of-age I Vitelloni as one of his greatest influences, especially on his film Mean Streets. But his commentary on L’Eclisse and its startling seven-minute montage finale is particularly provocative. Rossellini, who became more adventurous as a filmmaker as he aged, may have paved the way for these two masters, but the Antonioni and later Fellini clips and commentary are testament to a daring creativity and relevant modernity that were new to cinema.
My Voyage is also rich in insight–political and social. During the sequences shown from La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s take on the hedonistic ways of modern Rome’s upper crust, its parasites and thrill-seekers, Scorsese reminds that it is Cold War dread that suffuses the film. Not surprisingly, the Italian film that had the greatest influence on Scorsese is Fellini’s masterpiece and real breakthrough, 8 1/2, a daringly personal cinematic exploration and evocation of celebrity and creativity.
My Voyage also reveals that Scorsese is very much a product of the ’60s generation, identified with anti-war, free-love and other rebellious leanings, but also emotionally responsive to the startling array of original European, Russian and Japanese films of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Scorsese makes clear he wants to pass on to new generations the excitement of discovery he derived from experiencing early on the Italian classics. In fact, the films ends with his supplication simply expressed but deeply felt: “You should see them.” To its immense credit, this documentary makes us want to do just that.
–Doris Toumarkine, Film Journal International