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Past Article

Personally, Scorsese
By David Hudson
May 28, 2002 - 2:04 PM PDT

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia

You might find it odd that GreenCine would recommend a TV show but, in this case, we can fearlessly point out that Turner Classic Movies will be showing Martin Scorsese's Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy) on June 7 and 23. And that you dare not miss it. Don't get TCM? Get a friend to tape it. Why the fearlessness? Because Scorsese will have you rushing back to fill your queue with some astounding masterpieces of Italian cinema.

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia has been shown at a few festivals in a handful of cities around the world, but you know what that means: Very few people have had a chance to catch it. And until it comes out on DVD (a release date is expected to be announced some time this year), this is it. So set your timers, wind up your alarms, and you might even want to get in the mood by taking in something of a companion piece, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. There isn't much to add to what Stephen Holden wrote last year in the New York Times about the overall effect of the one-two punch: "It's no exaggeration to say that watching both films will forever change and deepen the way you look at cinema."

Agreed. Like most reviewers, after unabashedly enthusing all over the experience of seeing this four-hour documentary, Holden then outlines Scorsese's outline, and I'm not going to do that. I will say that this history of Italian cinema is divided into two parts, the first focusing primarily on the Neorealism of the immediate postwar period and the works of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica while the second takes us to the early 60s via the works of Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Scorsese explains his choices (magnificently and generously edited by his long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker) far better than any reviewer has or will, so, assuming you will obey and watch Il Mio Viaggio in Italia any way you can, I'm going to, on the one hand, take Scorsese's cue and offer a very personal reaction, but on the other, take the opposite tack by rambling only somewhat coherently and being very disorganized about it to boot.

First, I, personally, was far more impressed by Italia than by American Movies. Since that 1995 doc of about the same length, Scorsese seems to have done more delving into his own history and to have gained a bit more confidence when it comes to revealing how his personal life is inextricably entangled with his experience of the movies he evidently took in ravenously as he grew up. Italia opens with Scorsese standing next to the RCA Victor television (or a reasonable facsimile) on which he first saw many of the movies he's about to talk about. There's a wonderful moment in which he contrasts a relatively healthy print of one scene with a version in the same resolution that RCA Victor would have offered -- and emphasizes that even though what he saw as a child was mostly smudgy and dark, the power of the images and the narrative propelling them pierced through the murk.

Just as etched into his young mind was sight of his parents and extended family, all gathered around that TV set, brought to tears by the Italian movies fledging New York television broadcasters would fill out their programming with on Friday evenings. These movies -- and Scorsese admirably spends quite a while on this -- were an unexpected connection back home for countless Italian Americans and, for little Marty, an introduction to where his family came from that his parents wouldn't have otherwise made.

Maybe you caught The Concert for New York City broadcast live just a little over a month after September 11. If so, you'll remember that Scorsese was one of half a dozen filmmakers to contribute 5-minute shorts to the benefit. Besides a jovial visit to the local cheese shop, Scorsese's film features marvelous, recently discovered footage shot when the medium of moving pictures itself was in its infancy -- home movies, really -- of celebrations and weddings and big, room-stuffing family gatherings in Little Italy. At the time, I thought, well, he's working on Gangs of New York and his research is turning up all sorts of things.

But there's more of that footage in Italia, completed in 1999. When you discount the movies Scorsese has made for money and one or two exceptions that prove the rule, when you focus on the personal ones, in other words, you could say that Scorsese started out in contemporary New York with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and then began to probe deeper back into the 20th century before breaking into the 19th with The Age of Innocence, and now, with Gangs. It's not an arc, but there's a journey being mapped out here nonetheless.

And it has everything to do with identity -- personal, social, ethnic. Right after Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese made a minor but loveable documentary called Italianamerican in which he goes over to his parents' place for dinner and tries to get them to talk about what life's been like as a hyphenated American. With American Movies and Italia, Scorsese has continued to explore both sides of that hyphen and, however Gangs turns out as a film once it's finally released this Christmas, it's going to be a fascinating document of that same exploration, a portrait of a time when being both Italian and American or Irish and American meant to a great extent being neither.

A second note about American Movies and Italia to toss in here is that Italia is far more emotionally exhausting. Case in point, just to keep it on the personal level: My wife. American Movies, both as an experience and as an argument, pretty much left her cold, but before the first hour of Italia was up, she'd already gone through half a box of tissues. I got more out of the first doc than she did, but I absolutely concur with her verdict on the second.

Two reasons here, I think. The first is that Scorsese does a better job of presenting his Italian selections than his American ones. He dwells on these phenomenal films, one by one, for ten, fifteen minutes or more, but the editing and narration are so brilliant, you could easily come away with the impression that you've just had the very next best thing to actually seeing whole movie. I couldn't help but suspect that Scorsese had a hunch that his presentation of, say, Rossellini's Open City would be the only experience of that film a lot of his audience, for whatever reason, would ever have. And he loves these movies too much to have you make do with just a taste; you simply must try one full course of each of these all-evening meals.

The second reason Italia packs such an emotional wallop lies, of course, with the films themselves. I can't think of another national cinema in which children play such a prominent role, for example. Not as walk-ons or as decorative ornaments to a protagonist's character, but as full-fledged, complex, living, breathing protagonists themselves. And in the shattered and defeated Italy of the Neorealist period, these were often not happy lives. Which is another thing. As I watched Italia and saw one film after another end on a tragic or ambiguous note, I thought over and over: No one would have the guts to do this today. Certainly not in Hollywood, that goes without saying; but even in the independent scene and in current European cinema, filmmakers are so concerned with turning their projects into calling cards to take with them to LA -- or the Hollywood formula has been so ingrained into their limited imaginations -- that they nearly always refuse to end, if not exactly with a party, then with a sense of affirmation, or at least resolution. But what's eye-opening about the films Scorsese presents in Italia is the reminder that neither tragedy nor ambiguity are life-negating.

A quick word about nationality. Scorsese gives us a brief glimpse of Cabiria, a silent epic by Giovanni Pastrone. It's a big, gorgeous, bombastic thing, and Scorsese is right to point out that Italy had millennia's worth of historical imagery and folklore to mine, and he contrasts that wealth with the mere couple of centuries American filmmakers like D.W. Griffith (who would be influenced by Cabiria) were working with. What he doesn't emphasize, though, is that the still young Italian nation may have come a long way by 1914, when Cabiria was made, but it was nowhere near the Roman empire the film conjures.

Whether Cabiria might be read as an early symptom of the nationalism that would lead to Mussolini or, less likely but possible, as an expression of a sense of loss, it is a radically different beast from the other thriving silent-era national cinema of Italy's neighbor to the north, Germany. When Pastrone looked to Italy's past, he discovered the monumental; when Fritz Lang looked backwards, as in Die Nibelungen, he discovered madness.

With the second part of Scorsese's Viaggio, we move into a period in which the movies he presents are still very Italian -- I mean, Fellini, come on -- but you start seeing, for example, stars that would soon be moving freely around the continent, lending themselves to French, German and British productions and directors, particularly in Antonioni's case, who would go on to become representatives of a "European cinema" in the 60s and 70s that would be seen as a broadly defined counterpart to American offerings of the same period. Again, national identity on film certainly wasn't evaporating, but it was beginning to dissolve just a little around the edges.

There are rumors and reports that Scorsese has plans for a third documentary that would do for the Italian cinema of the three decades that follow Il Mio Viaggio in Italia what he's done for his first two in what may turn out to be a series. Who knows, we should be so lucky. But if it happens, the tone, emotional and otherwise, will no doubt be very different from the first two. At the very least because he would no longer be talking about those very first memories of being enchanted by a flickering light he'd never seen before.

P.S. Another personal reaction to Il Mio Viaggio in Italia that's too sleasy and embarrassing to work into the article proper: How perfectly understandable and yet somehow eerie it is to watch the long segment on Stromboli , complete with Scorsese's brief summary and dismissal of the scandal associated with it and not have him mention just once that he and Isabella Rossellini were once an item!

Sorry. I couldn't help it.

But ok, I still can't: a couple of quickies: Ms. Rossellini is currently touring the talk show and book-signing circuit with a new collection of photos. Two of them depict her with former beaus David Lynch and Martin Scorsese; in both, the men's faces are covered.

"Marty," she says, the man who's given us some of the most violent non-horror movies ever, faints at the sight of his own blood. Telling, or what?

And finally, one photo of her and Scorsese was taken in the back seat of a car. The couple looks tentatively giddy, deeply relieved, elated, in love. The background: They were driving across the American desert when their own car crapped out. Not a sign of civilization for miles around. These were the days that long preceded mobile phones. What to do? The sun's beating down, vultures are circling, you get the picture.

Off on the horizon, they make out the unlikely sight of another car kicking up a trail of dust. It's headed their way. Closer. Closer. Through the veil of dust, they make out the face of the driver. Who just happens to be racing through the desert contemplating America. And scouting locations. The driver is Wim Wenders. Who took the photograph.

Sometimes I think the world of film is a thinly populated alternate universe.

back to past articles >>>

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia

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David Hudson
lives and writes in Berlin.

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