Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXVII: My Voyage to Italy

My Voyage to Italy (1999) ****
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Raffaele Donato, Kent Jones & Martin Scorsese.

Four years after Martin Scorsese took us on a journey through American films, in the excellent documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies with Martin Scorsese, he decided to do the same thing with Italian films in My Voyage to Italy. The film is a four hour documentary about the Italian films that Scorsese watched growing up that influenced his life and career as much as the American films he saw. Growing up Italian in New York, he saw many of these films on TV the first time, with his friends and family – many of whom were born in Italy – and the films left a lasting impact on the young man who would become American’s finest filmmaker.

The key difference between A Personal Journey and My Voyage to Italy, is that the later is more narrowly defined, concentrating on fewer films and filmmakers, but making up for it by going into much greater detail about the films under discussion. While A Personal Journey tried to give you a little taste of all the different genres and filmmakers in America’s studio age, My Voyage to Italy concentrates on just five filmmakers – Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. And while not even all of their films are covered (strangely, Scorsese doesn’t even mention Visconti’s The Leopard at all), the films he does choose to into detail about are masterworks, and Scorsese brings them to life, whether or not you’ve seen the films in question.

Scorsese starts his journey with Rossellini, particularly concentrating on his post war Trilogy, Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero, before also covering The Miracle, The Flowers of St. Francis, Stromboli, Europa ’51 and Journey to Italy. Scorsese covers Rossellini’s journey from one of the fathers of neo-realism, through his bigger movies with Ingrid Bergman, who would later become his wife. He concentrates on the sacrifice evident in his post-war trilogy, and about how each film moved further away from God and faith – culminating in the end of Germany Year Zero, where it seems like all faith has been lost. Rossellini was hardly an atheist director however, as proven in his next two films. In The Miracle, we initially think that he is going further into the absence of faith, as the one religious person in the movie is portrayed as so dimwitted that she believes a drifter who gets her so drunk that she passes out so he can rape her is St. Peter. When she wakes up and discovers she is pregnant, she believes she is carrying the return of Jesus, only to be mocked by everyone around her. Yet, the movie does indeed end in a miracle – the miracle of life when her baby is born. The Flowers of St. Francis is about also about faith, in a simple yet profound way. When Rossellini started to make movies with Ingrid Bergman, he was decried by his critics, who thought he had sold out, but the films are all great in their own way – and were really a continuation of what he had done before, culminating with the awesome power of Journey to Italy, a simple film about a couple who cannot stand each other.

From Rossellini, Scorsese moves onto Vittorio DeSica, concentrating on his three most famous films – Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., and also covering Golden Age in Naples. DeSica started out as an actor – an Italian Cary Grant, full of suave charm, but as the war was coming to an end, he decided he wanted to director, and he did a wonderful job at capturing the reality of the working class in his films. Shoeshine was a simple story of young boys who go through hell. The Bicycle Thief is even more simple – a man who needs his bike to do his job gets it stolen, and goes searching for it. But for Scorsese, and me, DeSica’s best film was Umberto D., the emotional story about an old man and his dog Flag, which has a great emotional power to it. Although DeSica moved on to make a lot of comedies in his later career, he always maintained his great filmmaking ability.

Next up is Luchino Visconti, who was different from both Rossellini and DeSica in a number of important ways. First of all, Visconti was an Italian aristocrat, who was also a communist, so his films concentrated on the hollowness of upper society. They were also heavily stylized, and pretty far away from the neo-realism on display in the films of Rossellini and DeSica, with the notable exception of La Terra Trema, one of the key neo realist films of all time. While Scorsese covers La Terra Trema along with Visconti’s brilliant debut film, Ossessione, his saves his most in depth review of Visconti’s work for Senso, Visconti operatic epic. This is one of the few films he covers in depth that I have never seen – but I will now try and track it down.

Although Scorsese covered Fellini next, he also circles back and ends with him, so I will as well, and instead move on Antonioni. This is the shortest segment, as Scorsese only concentrates on two of his films – L’Aventurra and Eclipse – but his love of the two films is certainly profound. In L’Aventurra, Scorsese concentrates on the emptiness of the film – how the people do not care about anything, and their lives are hollow. Antonioni took this even further with Eclipse, ending his film with a seven minute segment of shots of empty places as they are now missing the two main characters who have gone their own ways. The emptiness of the films is haunting.

Finally, Scorsese digs into Fellini, and you can tell that Fellini is his favorite. He concentrates most of his analysis of I Vetteloni, a film that inspired Scorsese in Mean Streets, La Dolce Vita, which like L’Aventurra thought that life was hollow, but unlike it, still thought it mattered. Poor Marcello the celebrity reporter who tries to hold himself above the people he writes about, although he is dragged down into the muck with the rest of them by the end. Finally, Scorsese spends a lot of time on 8 ½, Fellini’s masterpiece about a director in search of his muse. Scorsese’s love of the film is contagious, and makes me want to go out and see it again.

And that in effect is what My Voyage to Italy is about. Scorsese’s love of Italian cinema, especially the work of these five masters, and Scorsese’s desire for others to watch these same films. No one is this more evident than in the film’s final scene when Scorsese says that he knows that film history, especially foreign film history, can seem like homework to budding film buffs, but how these films are worth watching, because the effected him, and they could affect you as well. I have seen most of the films he talks about, and yet I want to go back and watch them again. In Scorsese’s words, at one point it seemed like nearly every week, someone, somewhere in the world was breaking boundaries. Now, it’s become so few and far between, we don’t even notice anymore. That’s sad, and while Scorsese may be tilting at windmills in his desire to get people to watch these films, I will glad tilt around alongside him

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