Raised on the neo-realist films that played on his family’s RCA Victor television during the late 1940s and early ’50s, Martin Scorsese celebrates his passion for early Italian cinema with My Voyage to Italy. These were among Scorsese’s earliest memories, ones that would influence his work as a director. Standing on the roof of his childhood home in Corona, Queens, Scorsese readily admits that his vision is a unique blend of American and Italian influences. While Scorsese’s voyage through Italy’s cinematic origins does not make any direct reference to the director’s own films, the documentary is an essential companion piece to A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Most importantly, though, My Voyage to Italy is Scorsese’s defense of neo-realism as a philosophical art movement that sorted through the damage WWII did to Italy.
Images from Open City passionately compliment Scorsese’s recollection of how Roberto Rossellini’s film provided his family with a visual link to their lost homeland. They saw in effect what they left behind—a country about to be torn apart by Hitler and Mussolini’s fascism. Rossellini’s Trilogy of War (Open City, Paisan, and Germany, Year Zero), along with Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema, dissolved the lines between documentary and fiction. Early Italian films like Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria and Enrico Guazzoni’s Fabiola provide secret doors into Italy’s past while Rossellini’s concern for the freedom and sacrifice of Italy’s people inspired Scorsese. For him, the clarity of Rossellini’s vision becomes a near-religious experience.
Rossellini, like De Sica, encountered many monetary problems during filmmaking, which were easily eliminated by the use of real locations and by hiring non-professional actors. These rigorous limitations only amplified the harsh realities of many of these works, primarily De Sica’s Umberto D. and The Bicycle Thief. Scorsese is at his most personal when voicing his affection for De Sica and Rossellini, two filmmakers that engaged a humanistic dialectic between fear and hope. Scorsese calls Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis a work of “harrowing compassion,” a film that addresses the nature of compassion with the same vigilance that Rossellini’s The Miracle celebrates the endurance of faith in the aftermath of the Holocaust and WWII.
Scorsese calls specific attention to Guazzoni’s Fabiola, a prime example of how Italy’s directors precisely and effortlessly reconstructed the architecture of their ancient culture. Scorsese’s love for the beauteous décor of Guazzoni’s sets is akin to his admiration for the ornate nature of churches which, in turn, seems to explain the director’s own rigorous directing style. “If Stendhal had a camera, it would be like Senso,” says Scorsese of Visconti’s elaborate melodrama. Scorsese’s deconstruction of Senso is of vital importance for it seemingly explains how Visconti’s communist-tainted aristocratic upbringing informed the director’s Marxist approach to filmmaking. Scorsese draws our attention toward Senso’s colorful cinematography and how it monochromatically crumbles by film’s end. Scorsese’s documentary becomes more than just a celebration of the films that have shaped his style (indeed, Senso is all over The Age of Innocence), but an encouragement of active spectatorship.
Visconti worked through artifice to get to the truth, a natural evolution for Italian cinema after its neo-realist origins. After Visconti there was Federico Fellini, whose I Vitelloni served as an influence for Mean Streets (the only Scorsese film alluded to in My Voyage to Italy). Scorsese’s analysis of I Vitelloni is especially relevant because it suggests that all Italian cinema up until that point, to some degree or another, was concerned with the emotional and physical isolation of the Italian citizen within their country. The men of I Vitelloni are desperate to leave Italy, yet they are afraid of losing its comfort—a relationship echoed in the relationship between New York and the men of Mean Streets. The decadence of La Dolce Vita is in sharp contrast to that of early neo-realist films; times have changed and, according to Scorsese, Fellini’s vision (his “scientific temperament”) was very much about the “now.”
While My Voyage to Italy is never less than engaging, Scorsese only superciliously addresses the influence these films had on his own style (almost the entire film has been reconstructed from archival footage). While this may make for a particularly unselfish journey, My Voyage to Italy works best as a course in Italian cinema, from Rossellini’s Open City to Fellini’s 8 1/2. Of course, if one is familiar with Scorsese, the ties between Italian cinema and the director’s own films should be more than obvious. Of The Miracle, Scorsese says: “Christianity is meaningless if it can’t allow the elemental nature of sin.” The film’s emotionally volatile evocation of humanity’s sacredness set adrift on a prison island might as well be the framework for any of Scorsese’s New York-set pictures. Scorsese’s own concern with the conflict between material and emotional worlds can be found in the documentary’s mesmerizing study of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. My Voyage to Italy is Scorsese’s personal response to Italian films that shaped his world, films where “nothing but time stared back at us.” This riveting memento mori, like 8 1/2 to Fellini, is Scorsese’s pure expression of love for the cinema.
Well, it’s your call as to whether this transfer of Scorsese’s passionate My Voyage to Italy passes the test. The sound is as good as it gets, but what about the image, which mixes black-and-white shots of Scorsese in a pre-9/11 New York with clips from countless Italian neorealist classics? The modern-day shots look fabulous, even if the post-production effects employed by Cappa Productions to make the footage look older than it really is are a little on the cheesy side. As for the archival footage used throughout the documentary, it’s obvious that a lot a care was put into cleaning them up, but could Scorsese’s people have gone further? Now, if only every studio who owned the rights to these films (from L’ Eclisse to Shoeshine) would get on the ball and give them proper DVD releases.
Can’t afford that course in Italian cinema being offered at New York University? Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy is just as good, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.