My Voyage to Italy

This week, Miramax video released Martin Scorsese’s moving four-hour documentary on postwar Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy (1999). I’ll never forget seeing the film in a packed Castro Theatre in San Francisco a few years ago and the raucous applause that followed it. It’s a personal tribute to internationally acclaimed films by Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and others–films Scorsese remembers his family gathering around the TV to watch when he was a child. Interspersing a brief reconstruction of his family’s milieu with many clips from the films, Scorsese confirms again why I appreciate him more as a cinephile than a filmmaker–expansive, passionate, and sensitive to questions of style, he communicates an infectious love of cinema and humanity that is inspiring and illuminating.

Scorsese begins with Rossellini’s Open City (1945), and describes the movement known as neorealism:

“By the time the war ended in 1945 the entire Italian movie industry was in shambles. The Germans had confiscated all of the film equipment and they converted Cinecitta, the film studio, into warehouses. And, of course, these were promptly bombed by the Allies. After the Germans had retreated from Rome, the studio became a refugee camp. So Italian filmmakers were sort of on their own with very, very precious few resources. And the nation of Italy itself needed to be reborn. . . .

If you ever have any doubt about the power of movies to effect change in the world, to interact with life and fortify the soul, then study the example of neorealism. So what was neorealism? Was it a genre? Was it a style? Was it a set of rules? More than anything else, 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 and in the process, they permanently changed the rules of moviemaking.”

The film provides extensive plot summaries and thematic encapsulations for a wide range of films, including poorly-distributed gems such as Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) and Europa ’51 (1951). It examines the Italian epics that influenced D.W. Griffith, the “white telephone” films of the Fascist period, Rossellini’s films with Ingrid Bergman and his late historical works, De Sica’s humanist classics, Fellini’s moving early works, Visconti’s aristocratic period films, Antonioni’s meditations on alienation and the modern world.

I find myself of two minds regarding the documentary: on the one hand, it offers a passionate overview of postwar Italian cinema and many rarely-screened works, but on the other hand, its narrative approach is full of spoilers for anyone who hasn’t already seen these works. In other words, it’s introductory criticism, but it’s also akin to randomly skimming these films. I would recommend seeing as many of the films it addresses as one can beforehand–Open City, Germany Year Zero, Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D, and many of Fellini’s early works are available in North America on DVD, for example. But if one considers narrative revelations a minor price to pay in one’s filmic education, Scorsese’s overview is a rousing and invigorating tribute.