Friday, April 9, 2010

Scorsese Film #3 - My Voyage to Italy

Film #3 of 14 - My Voyage to Italy

"I saw these movies. They had a powerful effect on me. You should see them," says Martin Scorsese in the introduction to his epic, nearly 5 hour documentary about Italian films of the 1940's-1960's that impacted his life and his future as a film director, My Voyage to Italy.

The film begins with a family history, and home movies. Growing up in New York, Scorsese's relatives mostly came from Sicily, and his neighborhood was like an extension of their homeland. In fact, there were so many Italians and Sicilians living in NY that there was a channel on television that showed many Italian films, and people would gather in front of the few sets in his neighborhood to watch them. Of these events, Scorsese states, "My world, which consisted of my apartment, the church, the school down the block and the candy store suddenly became bigger."

Like his previous documentary, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, My Voyage to Italy is dense with information, but approachable due to Scorsese's enthusiasm and conversational style. In his narration, he is both mentor and educator, analyzing both commercial successes and lesser-known films with equal depth. Focusing mainly on the Neo-Realism movement, the seed from which post-war Italian cinema grew and a genre that emerged from crumbling post-war countries that saw rampant poverty, destruction and unemployment, these films told the gritty stories of their reality. Scorsese mainly focuses on films by Roberto Rossellini (Paisan, Voyage to Italy), Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D.) and Luchino Visconti (Obsession, Senso). I loved that there were a lot of films featured I had never heard of, and also really liked hearing Scorsese talk about films I am both familiar with and have a deep appreciation for, like The Bicycle Thief.

In Neo-Realism, things just happen and everything simply unfolds, as in life. Scorsese likens the clarity of vision in this genre to have almost a religious impact on him, and the forthrightness is both thought-provoking and jarring. For example, in Rossellini's 1947 film, Germany Year Zero, there is a scene where a young German boy, about 10 years old who, in complete despair, commits suicide by jumping from his bombed out apartment's window. The difference (other than subject matter) between this kind of film and American films of the time? You actually see him land, face down. While discussing de Sica's films, which are films of powerful simplicity (even the comedies), Scorsese mentions that Orson Welles once said of de Sica's work, "I could never do what he did with his films; he made the camera disappear." This statement could be analyzed to hell, particularly if you hypothesize the role of egotism in directing, but egomaniacal or not, Welles hit the nail on the head with his statement.

Later, Scorsese focuses on directors that got their start on the crews of these Neo-Realist films, like Federico Fellini and Michelango Antonioni, and I was surprised to learn that Fellini's 8 1/2 is one of Scorsese's biggest influences, simply because it is one of the more well known classic Italian films ever made. Though I wished that there were other Fellini films highlighted, Scorsese is so knowledgeable and interesting that I didn't mind learning more about it, especially in light of the long list of films I now have to watch based on the previous 3 hours of the documentary.

My Voyage to Italy is an excellent documentary and well worth the time investment, but only for true film lovers and especially foreign film lovers. Sometimes it takes a documentary like this one, or even just seeing a great foreign film, to realize all of the excellent foreign films we probably miss in our lifetime. Because Neo-Realism is one of my favorite genres, I was riveted from start to finish, but Scorsese makes no bones about the fact that these are the films that influenced him and nothing more, and that is why he sometimes spends up to a half hour discussing one film alone, something that might be cumbersome for a casual viewer. Scorsese is at heart a film buff, and because of his deep appreciation and vast breadth of knowledge, he is an educator who clearly desires to share his love of cinema and those films that influence him, without an ounce of ego: "If I hadn't seen these movies I wouldn't be the filmmaker I am today."

4 out of 5 stars

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