That Old Feeling: Two Voyages to Italy

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A scene from Fellini's '8 1/2', part of Scorsese's look into Italian filmmaking

"The Eternal City" ... "in CinemaScope" ... "Directed and Produced by Martin Scorsese."

This isn't another lost Scorsese film, like the long-deferred "Gangs of New York." It's a dream project that the boy Marty storyboarded back in the early 50s, when, at 10 or 11, he first tumbled under the swooning spell of Italian historical epics like Alessandro Blasetti's "The Iron Crown" and "Fabiola." He saw these and many other Italian pictures on his family's TV at 253 Elizabeth Street in Manhattan's Little Italy. He says that, watching these films, "I found a secret door that led to the heart of the ancient world... I had the feeling I was watching a newsreel of ancient Rome."

Scorsese speaks to us, from his youth and his wisdom, in the documentary "Il Mio Viaggio in Italia" / "My Voyage to Italy," a four-hour inundation in Italian movies from the early 40s ("The Iron Crown" and Luchino Visconti's "Ossessione") to the early 60s (Michelangelo Antonioni's "Eclipse" and Federico Fellini's "8-1/2"). Less a synoptic view of this fertile terrain than a visit to some favorite landmarks, the film premiered in 1999 at the Venice Film Festival and is showing this month on Turner Classic Movies (next time: Sunday the 23rd) along with 20 features that give the viewer a crash course in masterpieces from the Peninsula. Every Friday night TCM is airing 10 to 12 hours of prime cinematic real estate: four films each by Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, three by Fellini and Vittorio de Sica, two by Michelangelo Antonioni, two pioneering silent films ("Cabiria" and "The Last Days of Pompeii") and, just for Marty, "The Iron Crown."

If these names and titles mean nothing to you, perhaps Scorsese's do — for his brilliantly crafted studies of violent ecstasy ("Mean Streets, "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas") and many equally adroit documentaries ("Italianamerican," "American Boy," "The Last Waltz," "Made in Milan"). In 1995 he assembled "A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies," the engrossing prequel to this latest compilation. Both films offer a rich banquet of images, memories, analyses, aphorisms. But they do more: they chart the gestation of the sophisticated movie fancies bubbling within our most distinctive and accomplished cinemagician.

Every director came from somewhere, Scorsese, who will be 60 this November, came not just from Little Italy, familiar to us from "Mean Streets," but old Italy — ancient Rome, the Eternal City that spawned Caesar and Mussolini, and Rossellini and Fellini as well. To have seen a Martin Scorsese Picture is to be acquainted, second-hand, with the American and Italian films that nurtured him. Why not take this chance to see the real things? "I know that if I'd never seen the films I'm going to be talking about here," he says at the beginning of his Italian voyage, "I'd be a very different person and, of course, a very different filmmaker."

A few influences are easy to spot. Fellini's "I Vitelloni," the story of five young men who bicker, fool around and make trouble on their way to nowhere in particular, spawned "Mean Streets." Rossellini's "The Flowers of St. Francis" was an important inspiration to "The Last Temptation of Christ" and the baby-Buddha bio "Kundun." I wouldn't be surprised if the bitter domestic sparring between Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Rossellini's "Il Viaggio in Italia" / "Voyage to Italy" (from which the title for this film comes) emboldened Scorsese to draw out the arguments in his movies to their shrill, enervating extreme — what we may call the Joe Pesci factor. The layering of rapid dialogue in Italian movies, with every minor character determined to put his two lira in, is mirrored not just in Scorsese's films but in his own famously fast and urgent patter.

Some of the most fascinating footage in "Voyage" is not from any Italian film. It's a home movie, shot by Scorsese's uncle, of the old neighborhood: Marty's home, the street where his mother and grandparents shopped, a celebration with a dozen family members crushed together as if on the 2nd Avenue "el" at rush hour, Marty's father Charles smiling broadly. In 1948 Charles, a presser in the Garment District, bought a 14" TV set (that's big, and early); Marty was six then. Italian-Americans being one of the largest ethnic groups in the city, a local station often showed Italian movies. They were dubbed, cut for the time slot, interrupted by commercials, shown in muddy prints — and they were, to this bright, asthmatic child, a lightning revelation. "My world," he says, "consisted of our apartment, the church, the school a block away, the candy store around the corner. All of a sudden, it became much bigger."

The Child Scorsese loved these movies, in part, because they gave him a time-capsule glimpse into the land his parents had left (and brought with them): Sicily. A country with a millennial history of outside conquest and furtive survival, Sicily was depicted in films like Blasetti's "1860" as a place where, Scorsese says, "You think twice before you trust anyone outside your family." A place, in order words, like Elizabeth Street in the 1940s, or like nearly any Martin Scorsese film thereafter.


"My Voyage to Italy" is not the only available movie overview of Italian cinema. For a more scholarly documentary approach, consult the three hour-long chapters that Carlo Lizzani contributed in 1992 to the "Antologia del Cinema Italiano" series; they cover neorealism from 1942 to 1954, and are available in some video stores. Lizzani, a screenwriter on Rossellini's "Germany Year Zero" and Giuseppe de Santis' sexy-socialist "Bitter Rice," provides clips from a much wider range of films than Scorsese does; you'll see snippets of obscure, potent films like Aldo Vergano's "Il Sole Sorge Ancora" and Luigi Zampa's "To Live in Peace" with the great Anna Magnani, star of "Open City." Lizzani also wrestles valiantly with the question, "Did neorealism really exist?" He finally comes to a broad definition of the form as "a brave and clever mix of different film styles — a daring attempt to harmonize around a central theme of new inspiration and moral tension."

Lizzani is the professor; Scorsese is the brilliant student whose homework is his passion. At the heart of his "Voyage" are 16 synopses, six to 18 mins. each, of the Italian films that have meant the most to Scorsese. Most of these can be categorized as "neorealism," a form that told slim, grim stories of the Italian working (or wish-they-were-working) class trying to rise above a victim status imposed on them by the occupying Nazis during World War II and a crippling poverty after it. The setting was usually outdoors, the camera style functional and unobtrusive, the cast often composed of nonprofessional actors.

Scorsese believes these were more than good films: "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." He says that the form's directors "needed to dissolve the barrier between documentary and fiction, and in the process they changed the rules of moviemaking... Illusion took a back seat to reality." Though he has an acute eye for frame composition and narrative impact, Scorsese isn't speaking as a scholar. This time it's personal: "For me, [neorealism] is the most precious moment in film history."

He quotes Lindsay Anderson, the English critic and filmmaker, as finding neorealistic films defined by "first, their tremendous actuality; second, their honesty; and third, their passionate pleading for what we have come to call 'human values'." Skeptics would translate that as (first) street movies that (second) critics can agree with because they are (third) Marxist — the triumph of leftist sentimentality.

I agree, that's too strong, and not just because I happen to be a sentimental leftist. There's no doubt that the landmarks of neorealism — Rossellini's "Open City" and "Paisan," de Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" and "Umberto D.," Visconti's "La Terra Trema" — spoke starkly of human despair and determination. In the immediate postwar era, "Open City," with its Partisans daring to defy the Nazi occupiers, became, as Scorsese says, "the New Italy's ambassador to the world." But the film also ingratiated because it portrayed Italians as holy victims and heroic Partisans. Wasn't every Italian in the Resistance?

Victims they had been, and some had been heroes, for the two years of the Nazi occupation. But for 20 years before that, the Old Italy — under the popularly elected dictator Benito Mussolini, whose Fascists had won 60% of the vote in the last free elections in 1924 — was a bully. It oppressed its own and other peoples, launching invasions of Abyssinia, North Africa and Yugoslavia (and, in the last two campaigns, needing military bailouts from Hitler's Germany). When Il Duce fell from power in 1943, Italy allowed the Nazis to march in and take over. Germany was defeated, not by the Italians but by the Allies. Films like "Paisan" have so many roles for American soldiers because the Americans were there; they fought their way up the Boot and liberated it.

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