January 31, 2011

6 My Voyage to Italy (1999)

Country: Italy-US
Director: Martin Scorsese

"I like to think of neorealism as the seed from which a beautiful, solid tree has grown, and the branches on that tree represent virtually all the major Italian filmmakers of the postwar era."
—Martin Scorsese in My Voyage to Italy

My Voyage to Italy—part reminiscence, part film essay—is Martin Scorsese's splendid four-hour long valentine to post-World War Two Italian cinema. Concentrating on movies made between Open City (1945) and (1963), it examines the origins of the neorealist movement, which he calls "the most precious moment in film history," and its influence on Italian cinema. Scorsese focuses on the five most important directors who came out of the movement and have been inspirations both for his own films and in one way or another for nearly all Italian films made after them.

Scorsese spends the first half hour of his documentary relating how as a boy he first became acquainted with Italian cinema—by watching subtitled Italian movies shown on television on Friday nights with his family and neighbors, beginning with the first Italian movie he ever saw, the neo-realist Roberto Rossellini's Paisan. He tells how his grandparents, immigrants from Sicily who never even became American citizens, and his family's friends and neighbors in New York's Little Italy, where he grew up, gathered at his home to watch these movies for scenes of their homeland and to hear the Sicilian dialect they spoke themselves being spoken by the actors in the movies. The experience was the first time he really became aware of his own family's origins, and for a young boy already fascinated with the American movies he saw regularly with his father, he found that a new world of cinema had opened to him. Interspersed with excerpts from Italian films are home movies of his own family and neighborhood in the late 1940s. Together they paint a vivid picture of Scorsese's own boyhood, both the real and the imaginary.

After a half hour or so, Scorsese moves on to an overview of the neorealist movement and then to the films and directors themselves. Neorealism was, he says, something that arose spontaneously. It came about not as a deliberate movement based on a manifesto of any kind, but as a collective response to Italy's traumas of World War Two. It was born not only of the psychic need to make sense of the painful events of the recent past, an aim that required greater realism than was typical of prewar Italian movies, but also of practical necessity. With the studios bombed and then taken over as refugee camps, filmmakers turned to the streets and bombed-out ruins of the cities and to the countryside for locations. When there weren't enough professional actors to populate a movie, they turned to non-professionals. These decisions initially born of necessity led to an artistic style that perfectly suited the desire of these directors to capture reality on film, as he puts it, "to dissolve the barrier between documentary and film."

Scorsese spends nearly an hour on an exhaustive survey of the early films of Roberto Rossellini, identifying his first postwar work, Open City, as the first true neorealist movie, as have film scholars virtually without exception. He illustrates the movie with copious excerpts, something he continues for the rest of the documentary. Some of his descriptions of the films run in excess of ten minutes (the longest is a twenty minute segment on Luchino Visconti's Senso that includes a fascinating analysis of the movie's color design) and practically consist of a condensed version of the movie, an approach which provides a visual and emotional feast for those already familiar with the films, but which those unfamiliar with them and sensitive to spoilers might find too detailed. Curiously, the one major early Rossellini work he barely touches on is Journey to Italy (1954), the one from which he took the title of his own documentary, although the reason for this apparent neglect becomes clear when he returns to this film later on.

From Rossellini, Scorsese moves next to Vittorio de Sica, noting that if Rossellini filmed the facts, de Sica concentrated on the emotional responses of his characters to such an extent that, as Orson Welles remarked, the camera became invisible. He continues with the other major neorealist directors—Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni. As he examines each in turn, he shows how as a director, each of these men contributed something more to Italian cinema as his own personal style evolved and he departed further from the original documentary-like aspirations of early neo-realism, leading postwar Italian cinema to its zenith in the early 1960s. To Rossellini's objective realism and de Sica's stress on emotions, Visconti added politics, history, and an emphasis on style that transformed his films into something almost operatic. Fellini brought to Italian cinema a strong sense of autobiography, injecting into each of his films an authenticity based on his own personal experience. Antonioni embarked in his films on an existential quest that ended in enigma, a search for meaning in life that yielded no clear answers beyond the fact that individuals seeking connection, whether with one another or with life itself, are fated to isolation.

Towards the end of My Voyage to Italy, Scorsese finally returns to Rossellini's Journey to Italy, right before turning to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. As I watched scenes from Journey to Italy, I was struck by how much they seemed like scenes from an Antonioni movie of the early 1960s, a real surprise since Antonioni's sensibility at this time strikes me as having little in common with Rossellini's straightforward nerealism. Scorsese then gives us a further surprise by concluding My Voyage to Italy with a thorough and loving examination of Fellini's , another film that seems in a world far away not only from Rossellini's but at times from reality itself, a film that Scorsese compares to experiencing a dream. In this way Scorsese ingeniously manages to relate the origins of neorealism to its ultimate, and seemingly far-removed, expressions.

Scorsese makes My Voyage to Italy a moving and personal experience. He shows how these directors and their films affected him both as an impressionable boy and as an adult, inspiring him and teaching him in his own career as a film director. Yet he manages to filter his perceptions through his own reactions to these films without ever falling into the trap of this New Journalism approach to non-fiction—solipsism, that is, making himself the main subject. Even more impressively, he makes an informative movie of real substance, offering penetrating and insightful analysis of those five directors who emerged from neo-realism and of their work, and he does this without even a trace of academic or intellectual pretension.

I just cannot recommend this documentary more enthusiastically to anyone interested in Scorsese, in the neorealist movement, in Italian cinema, in postwar European cinema, or in film history in general. If you are already well-informed on the subjects covered by Scorsese, you can revisit them all over again, like a cinematic gourmet savoring a banquet of many of your favorite dishes. If you consider yourself moderately familiar with these subjects, you're certain to find previously untasted delights to add to your must-see list, just as I did. If you're new to these subjects or just want to learn more about them, I can't think of a better place to start. In any case, I can guarantee that a real treat lies in store.


Rossellini: Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero, The Miracle, The Flowers of St. Francis, Stromboli, Europa '51, Journey to Italy (a.k.a. Voyage to Italy, Strangers)
De Sica: Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D
Visconti: Ossessione, La Terra Trema, Senso
Fellini: I Vitelloni, La Dolce Vita, 8½
Antonioni: L'Avventura, The Eclipse


On Open City:

"a one-of-a-kind film where history and cinema met to create something uniquely powerful"

On Paisan:

"a film about Liberation and its price"

On Germany Year Zero:

"I think that Rossellini was pleading with the nations of postwar Europe to find some sympathy and tolerance for their former enemy so that they could all go on together"

On The Flowers of St. Francis:

"a film about having faith, the embracing of faith"

On Journey to Italy:

"it feels like you're watching a real-life married couple"

"small events and details are the movie"

On Shoeshine:

"there are no barriers at all between de Sica and these children whose tragic lives he understood perfectly"

On The Bicycle Thieves:

"this was the movie that many people around the world regarded as the peak moment of neorealism"

On Umberto D:

"a great film about what it is like to stand by and watch helplessly as you slip into poverty and even your dignity becomes excess baggage"

On Luchino Visconti:

"Visconti worked through total artifice as a way to the truth"

On Senso:

"style is everything"

On Fellini:

"in the films of his I love the best, the emotions feel very personal, as though they've actually been lived through"

On I Vitelloni:

"humor always has a way of creeping into a serious situation and [Fellini] always pulls it off"

On La Dolce Vita:

"a milestone, a watershed, a breakthrough . . . a new kind of storytelling"

"a spiritual epic"

On :

"[Fellini] reinvented what we all knew as cinema"

"the really thrilling thing about is that you're basically watching Fellini create the film before your eyes"

"the purest expression of love for the cinema that I know of"

On L'Avventura:

"the pain of just being alive"

On The Eclipse:

"a real step forward in storytelling . . . it feels less like a story and more like a poem"

"the final seven minutes . . . suggested that the possibilities in cinema were absolutely limitless"

On the cinema of the early 1960s:

"I wish that every young person with an interest in film could have had the same experience that I had back in those days—to be young, open to everything, and to walk into the theater and have your expectations not just met, but surpassed, time and time again."


  1. R.D.

    A great, great review of one of the most informative, penetrating, deeply felt documentaries about the love of film only matched by his earlier documentary, "A Journey Through American Film." I saw this film on TCM a few years ago, and believe I still have it on video tape. Watching it is like taking a film class taught by a master filmmaker. What else can you ask for? His personal reminisces about growing up in Little Italy strike home with me having lived not too far from that area of Little Italy my first eleven years. My own introduction to Italian cinema was on Million Dollar Movie, on a local TV station that back then showed the same movie twice a night and three times on the weekends. I know Scorsese talks about this either in this film or the "American Film" documentary. Anyway the film was "Two Women."

    I am still working my way through a lot of Italian cinema but this film is really a great primer and you have done a great job here. I love the quotes at the end.

  2. John, thank you so much for your comment. I rarely read non-fiction, I rarely watch documentaries. But this is one I wouldn't have missed for anything. I certainly agree about the excellence of Scorsese's "Personal Journey Through American Movies." I also share your enthusiasm for "Two Women," which I saw again a year or two ago many years after my first viewing. This and "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" are for me de Sica's two late masterpieces after that early burst of genius during the neo-realist years. This documentary made me realize how much of a return to de Sica's great early films it was, both in subject and technique. I've seen only about two-thirds of the movies covered by Scorsese and some of those only in the last couple of years. I've already made amends by ordering "Journey to Italy" and "Shoeshine" from Amazon (Each cost under $10 + shipping) after giving up on Netflix ever acquiring them. As for the quotations at the end, the only problem I had was limiting them to the large number I included, so great is the scope of Scorsese's enthusiasm and insight about neo-realism.

  3. I haven't seen this documentary...did not even know it existed - and read your piece almost ravenously. Scorsese is so perceptive, reverent and articulate on the subject of film...and on Italian film, I can only imagine (and you have certainly fueled my imagination).
    I believe "Two Women" was also the first Italian film that I saw in a theater...the last was "Senso," in May at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. An indescribable experience - the fellow who introduced the film proclaimed that "Senso" should only be seen at the Castro and after seeing the film I realized he hadn't been exaggerating. It's a film that bombards the senses...and operatic. I had seen Coppola's "Tetro" not long before and the influence of Visconti on his work came to mind many times as I watched "Senso."
    Thanks for an absorbing and detailed account, R.D., I am on my way to Amazon.com.

  4. If Scorsese were to limit his future output to film history documentaries, I'd have few complaints. I'm not a fan of his fiction output, but these are incredible films (and I was lucky to first see them both on the big screen before getting them on DVD).

  5. Eve, I haven't been to the Castro Theater for a number of years, but I certainly envy your seeing "Senso" there. I can believe it was a rapturous experience. It's been awhile since I saw this film (and, alas, not in a theater), and I would certainly view it differently after hearing Scorsese's commentary. The film's visual delights were inescapable, but I was only vaguely aware of the historical background when I saw it. I've added "La Terra Trema" to my Netflix queue. According to Scorsese, it's Visconti's most strictly neo-realist film, and it certainly appeared to be from what was shown in the documentary. I saw "Ossessione" last summer and enjoyed it but felt that its proto-neo-realist tendencies and James M. Cain plot (it's based on "The Postman Always Rings Twice" but is much more openly erotic than the Garfield-Turner version) were at odds with its intensely (yes, operatic) emotional pitch. An interesting observation about "Tetro," which I saw a few months ago and liked very much (and I'm not much of a fan of Vincent Gallo).

    James, I too am most impressed by Scorsese's documentaries, and have great admiration for his work in film preservation and in sponsoring the revival of neglected artists like Michael Powell. Some of his fiction movies I like very much, others not so much. I tend to prefer the earlier ones. My favorite of all is "Mean Streets," his first real movie (although not the first he directed). About the time of "Raging Bull" I started to have reservations about his work. Some of his recent films struck me as being more about the logistics of directing (e.g., "Gangs of New York") than about telling a good story, exploring interesting characters, or drawing theaudience into the movie. I did think "GoodFellas" was a great movie, and compared to "Gangs" and "The Aviator," "The Departed" seemed like a return to form.

  6. This sounds like an excellent series, R.D., - I am also a fan of Scorsese and would like to see both this and his series about American cinema. Even before 'Mean Streets', which I agree is one of his greatest, I think that 'Who's That Knocking At My Door' was a powerful film too - there's a devastating scene where the main character, played by Harvey Keitel, insists he will forgive his girlfriend for the fact that she was raped and says he will "marry her anyway". I do like a lot of his later movies too, though - 'Bringing Out the Dead' is great and underrated in my book, and I love 'The Color of Money'. (I thought Daniel Day Lewis was amazing in 'Gangs', and a lot of the dialogue was great, but it was so violent I had a job keeping my eyes on the screen.) I've read the book of his 'Journey Through American Cinema', but haven't seen the series as yet.