Scorsese Italy 90Scorsese’s personal guide to great films that we might otherwise miss shows great insight and is brilliantly told.

Scorsese, Martin - My Voyage to Italy
Mr. Bongo
Certificate: 12
246 Minutes

This highly personal documentary introduces us to this director’s earliest influences. Growing up in New York City with his parents and Sicilian grandparents, he saw how deeply war films like Rossellini’s six-part Paisà (1946) and Rome, Open City (1945) affected them.

These neo-realist films taught him the price of occupation and liberation; the cost and value of sacrifice. As Scorsese was under ten years old at the time, he was also struck by the closeness of so many children to the brutality of war. He felt that the movies of Grimm’s Fairy Tales were also cruel, and his escape through fantasy came via historical films of the Roman Empire, which gave him a sense of heritage.

A third of the 34 clips that are shown here are by Rossellini, a documentary maker who turned to creating neo-realist classics with a deep human centre. Scorsese looks deeper than many into these films, throwing light on both the reaction the works received at the time and what the director was actually doing under the surface. A number of institutions, who wanted to ban some films, did not always understand before they complained, whereas Scorsese has a strong eye for the subtleties of a work and for the director’s intentions.

The Catholic Church may not have always approved of Rossellini’s work, but as well as films about the loss of faith, Scorsese finds others about its birth. He shows clips too from Rossellini’s strange, light-hearted film about St Francis and his band of followers (The Flowers of St. Francis, 1950).

As a director telling of how film has influenced his life, it is natural that Scorsese should include Fellini’s 8 ½ (1962), a classic that shows the journey, pressures and experiments of a director who struggles to balance his artistic inclinations with the expectations of his audience and the industry. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) also appears here. This masterpiece, which gave birth to the term ‘paparazzi’, is like a morality play, where a journalist grows disillusioned by the way that this career is affecting his spirit.

Although he refers to some earlier works, Scorsese concentrates on movies made between 1942 and 1963, a period when Italian film went through some major changes. After heart-rending stories like De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) surrealism makes an entrance as directors began to push boundaries of what film can do, and how it can do it. So Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) has the supposed heroine disappear early on and be almost forgotten by the end.

The director of Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Shutter Island is a genial host, his soothing voice inviting and his experience impossible to counter. He talks as someone impassioned, never patronising, but always enthusing. He is great to listen to; and after an introduction, where he looks at his audience, he mainly relegates himself to a voiceover, letting all the richness of the images tell most of the story.

Some may disagree with the balance of films covered, but this is a personal journey. Beware also that Scorsese feasts on spoilers and never apologises for giving away endings. Those who saw his companion 1995 documentary A Personal Journey through American Movies will guess the joys of this work, and may have the confidence to buy some of the films listed (especially Paisà, The Bicycle Thief, Germany Year Zero, Stromboli, Umberto D and La Dolce Vita) before viewing Scorsese’s analysis.

Altogether, this concisely scripted and brilliantly edited, four-hour banquet is a thrilling and delightful ride through the streets of early Italian cinema, a place that can make Hollywood feel very shallow.

Derek Walker