Director Martin Scorsese proves wonderfully gifted at identifying and articulating what movies really mean in an accessible but also poetic and profound way in the documentary My Voyage to Italy (I>Il Mio Viaggio In Italia), which he co-wrote and narrates. The film debuts Friday, June 7 at 8pm on Turner Classic Movies in conjunction with a festival of 20 Italian films.
In mellifluous near-whispers, Scorsese's observations accompany a vast history of the Italian cinema, beginning with the glamorous "white telephone" dramas of the 1930s modeled on Hollywood such as Il Signor Max (1937). Many featured Italian matinee idol Vittorio De Sica, who was to become a key director in the Italian neo-realist cinema, a chapter in film history that gives My Voyage much of its poignancy and emotional punch.
"If you ever have any doubt about the power of movies to affect change in the world, to interact with life and fortify the soul, then study the example of neo-realism," Scorsese notes while showing clips from the movies that defined that film movement: Paisan (1946), Open City (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1948).
The documentary addresses the profound influence of Italian neo-realist cinema of the post-WWII era and how this movement shook the foundations of film expression. Scorsese's investment in this cinema is of course legendary -- he even married into it when he wed Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini (Stromboli, Germany, Year Zero).
Along with Scorsese's special engagement with Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy demarcates a shift in Italy's film culture (which also marks a significant divide between previous generations and our own). While neo-realism dealt with the most basic assaults to human identity -- hunger, deprivation, deception, loss of loved ones and country -- the arrival of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini marked a new list of concerns addressed in the modern art film. In films such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and L'Avventura (1960), the most basic traumas of wartime are replaced with the ennui of a bourgeois society spared no material comfort but devoid of spiritual nourishment. In these films, characters confront a moral and spiritual void that has reoccurred in art cinema ever since, from Bernardo Bertolucci to Wim Wenders to Francis Ford Coppola to Neil LaBute.
My Voyage to Italy is the metaphysical voyage of a man retracing his childhood infatuation with the movies. Scorsese's obsessive and precocious relationship to the cinema is by now legendary: the bedridden, asthmatic childhood that fed the young director's interior life; the father who indulged him in regular trips to New York's movie theaters; an intense, stimulating exposure to the vibrant, clannish, world-unto-itself Little Italy of the 40s and 50s where he grew up.
As testament to Scorsese's preternatural cinematic fixation, the colored pencil drawings he made as a child, which were rudimentary storyboards, are included in the documentary. Inspired by Italian epics such as 1948's Fabiola, these innocent examples of Scorsese's movie love were also remarkably prophetic: In the inscription on one of the storyboard frames are the words "produced and directed by Martin Scorsese."
My Voyage to Italy is also a voyage of ethnic identity and of an Italian-American reconnecting with the place of his family's origin, which becomes available to him in the powerful images and emotions of Italian cinema. Watching these films on television with grandparents who wept at what unfolded on the screen, says Scorsese, gave him a sense of what his family left behind, a world that he could only experience vicariously through these movies.
Open and earnest expressions of emotion are rare enough in our slick, superficial culture, but to hear a man of Scorsese's stature speaking so openly about what these movies mean to him is astounding. Directors are fond of talking about their own craft, but rarer is the artist who is this frank in offering homage to his inspirations. Using clips from the 1953 Federico Fellini film I Vitelloni, Scorsese talks about the impact this story of a thick-as-thieves group of small-town young men desperate to escape their limited universe had on him. From the hooligan boyishness of these friends, to the beautifully fluid tracking shot that introduces them, one can detect immediately both the content and the style of Scorsese's Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Who's That Knocking at My Door.
It's hard to imagine a better guide to the many pleasures of movies than Scorsese or a more persuasive introduction (or return) to the singular achievements of Italian cinema than this intoxicating primer.