When Martin Scorsese grew up at 253 Elizabeth Street
in New York's Little Italy in the early 1950s, he led an appealingly schizoid movie-watching life. In the day, he'd venture to popular American flicks, such as Roy Rogers shoot-em-ups. At night, watching a 16-inch RCA black-and-white TV with his Italian-American parents and his Palermo-born grandparents, he'd peer at recent Italian art films, with subtitles. Post-War Italian cinema was shown regularly on New York TV, to the delight of the Scorsese clan. That's what's celebrated-sometimes eloquently, sometimes laboriously- in Scorsese's 246-minute, 35mm epic, My Voyage in Italy.
Scorsese, on camera and in voiceover, takes us on a highly subjective journey through many of his favorite Italian films, made between 1945 and 1963 by a handful of filmmaker masters: Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visonti, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni. At the top of Scorsese's director list is Rossellini, who, with Rome:Open City filmed raw in the streets as the Nazis fled, founded the Neo-Realist movement. Scorsese: "For me, the most precious moment of film history."
Starting with multiple scenes from this Anna Magnani-starring classic, Scorsese indulges us with sequences he adores from other Rossellini works, sometimes half-a-dozen from the same film. The scenes are inevitably splendid, but there are too many, and they run on too long! It gets frustrating: show less, or show the whole movie! It's particularily annoying to be bombarded with clips when the picture is as much studied as Rome: Open City.
My Voyage wakes up when Scorsese concentrates on less-known Italian films: De Sica's The Gold of Naples, a cheeky Sophia Loren farce; Luchino Visconti's Senso, a splendidly decadent period love story starring (dubbed) Strangers on a Train actor, Farley Granger; Rossellini's Stromboli, with an enticing Ingrid Bergman as a Lithuanian war refugee trapped in marriage to a sexist Italian peasant on a volcanic island.
About Scorsese's commentary. Too often, it's hyperbole about how "powerful" this scene is, or how "emotionally powerful." It's great that Scorsese loves these movies so much, and begs us to embrace them also, but that's not enough to carry us through. His heart-on-his-sleeve narration works only once, when he oohs and ahs about Fellini's I Vitelloni, finally confessing that this delicate, poetic story of friendship among five young Italian men trapped in their trivial lives was his seminal influence in formulating Mean Streets. He was as smitten by Fellini's form as the content: "I Vitelloni is a series of cuts and camera moves that have affected me all my life."
Scorsese is best when he gets pedantic, analytical. "If you are young, film history can be a chore, like homework," he acknowledges, but he makes it less of a trial by being at times such a helpful, enthralling teacher. Especially impressive is how he explains the wonders of Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, a movie championed by auteurist film critics such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard but which leaves most audiences cold and confused. Who cares about the crumbling, middle-years marriage of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders? Scorsese makes us care, by smartly guiding viewers through the couple's Italian road trip, from connubial boredom to alienation to estrangement to almost divorce to reinvigorating their love.