My Voyage to Italy
February 20, 2003
Fans of Martin Scorsese’s documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), are in for a treat as the legendary director returns with another personal journey, this time the focus is on Italian cinema with My Voyage to Italy (1999). He examines the influence of these films on his life and work. Clocking in at around four hours and spread over two DVDs, this documentary is as much about Scorsese as it is about the movies and the people that made them.
Scorsese’s father was a fan of the cinema and encouraged his son’s love of movies. As a boy, he watched Italian movies and they helped give him an idea of the world that his grandparents had left behind. These movies also gave him a sense of his own history. Scorsese grew up enjoying Hollywood westerns because they were fantasies that allowed him to escape but he also enjoyed the gritty realism of Italian films, like Paisa (1946), by Roberto Rossellini.
Appropriately, Scorsese kicks things off by tracing the roots of Italian neorealism and defines it thusly, “It was a response to a terrible moment in Italy’s history. The neorealists had to communicate to the world everything their country had gone through. They needed to dissolve the barrier between documentary and fiction.” He then shows a clip from The Bicycle Thief (1947), one of the most famous examples of the genre. It was with this film that illusion took a backseat to reality.
The first major Italian filmmaker Scorsese looks at is Roberto Rossellini, whom he identifies as the father of Italian neorealism. Rossellini not only influenced many future filmmakers but he also gave a few of them their start. For example, his cameraman on his early films was none other than Mario Bava, who went onto become the master of Italian horror. Scorsese regards Rossellini as sorely underappreciated and one of the few filmmakers who got more adventurous (and controversial) as his career progressed.
Scorsese covers all of the major Italian filmmakers, like Vittorio De Sica and Count Luchino Visconti. Of course, he talks about Federico Fellini and his movie, I Vitelloni (1953). Scorsese felt very connected to this film (it’s his favourite of Fellini’s) in particular because he was able to relate it a lot of his own life when he was growing up. He cites it as a major influence on his own Mean Streets (1973)—both are about growing up and accepting responsibility.
He also touches upon one of Fellini’s most famous films, La Dolce Vita (1960). Scorsese considers it a milestone of cinema and describes it lovingly as “an enormous fresco teeming with nonstop activity.”
As Scorsese moves on to L’Avventura (1960), by Michelangelo Antonioni, he talks about how it polarized audiences. There were two camps—those who loved the warm, vivacious La Dolce Vita and those who were attracted to the distant, mysteriousness of L’Avventura. Scorsese remembers being captivated by Antonioni’s movie and has watched it numerous times, trying to understand it and unlock its mysteries.
What makes this documentary work so well is that it feels like you are watching it with Scorsese sitting next you, his omnipresent voiceover narration whispering in your ear. What he says is not just informative but he also personalizes the material. He talks about how it makes him feel. Because Scorsese is a master filmmaker, his comments carry a lot of weight because he’s been out there making movies too. For example, when he ends things with Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), Scorsese talks about how he felt that the famous Italian director reinvented film. He essentially made a movie about his own artistic dilemma: how does one top their last film and how does one deal with that kind of pressure? Scorsese observes, “You’re basically watching Fellini create the film before your eyes. The creative process is the structure.”
None. And to be honest, none really needed.
My Voyage to Italy is a fascinating look at Italian cinema through the eyes of one of our greatest living directors. Scorsese wants to keep film history alive by passing it down to a younger generation. He wisely realizes that the only way to do this is for him to try and impart his own enthusiasm for the material and hope that it rubs off.