Acorn Media // 2005 // 386 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // October 19th, 2009
It's sort of like taking a trip to Italy, but cheaper and with worse food...
From the title, you'd probably assume that Brian Sewell's Grand Tour of Italy is a travelogue; a bunch of pretty pictures of the Italian countryside with New Age-y music playing in the background. Well...it ain't. If you're an old-school-tie-wearing Englishman, you know that Sewell is the art critic for the London Evening Standard, and presume that it is an extended art history lecture. Well...not really.
Instead, this ten-episode trek from the frigid Italian Alps to the original tourist trap, Venice, is...well, it's a unique documentary, unlike most others you'll run across. Over the ten episodes, Sewell recreates the "Grand Tour" that your average well-bred young nobleman in Hanoverian England would have undertaken in order to become more cultured. In this case, "become more cultured" was often a polite way of saying "occasionally watching an opera or viewing a fresco while screwing one's way across Europe on daddy's dime." (You know -- the Paris Hilton lifestyle.)
Sewell is a very old line kind of Englishman -- five minutes of listening to his learned but dry prose and visions of peaty scotch and tweed jackets will be dancing in your head. Truth be told, he's a bit too dry -- he's clearly highly knowledgeable on all the topics touched upon in this series, and does impart a lot of information to the viewer. However, he approaches the series itself with what can only be described as "disdain" -- he does not think that television is a worthwhile way of teaching (and says as much), and therefore does not care in the least whether his presentations are entertaining. You can listen, or you can turn it off -- it's all the same to him.
On the other hand, he pulls no punches with respect to the real reasons these noblemen went on these trips: they went to get laid, specifically by women (or, for some, by men) who would not be the source of scandal or family dishonor back home. It's amusing to see this elderly, upper-class professorial man speaking so frankly about homosexuality, reusable condoms, syphilis, and the 18th century's versions of "cougars."
But really, the star of this show is, natch, Italy itself. There's no such thing as a bad camera shot of Italy, even in the late winter/early spring (when this series was shot). The scenery on display here (in a fine but somewhat muted anamorphic widescreen presentation) varies from pleasant to spectacular. Sewell visits (and occasionally entertainingly disparages) a number of the architectural or artistic points of interest that a Grand Tourist would also have visited; again, the photography carries the day.
If you can get past the dryness and Sewell's upper-class airs, you'll find Grand Tour of Italy has a lot to offer. It's a different and unique take on Italy, using the 18th century grand tours as a jumping-off point for discussions of both art history and the societal history of England. There's a lot of great photography of some really beautiful art, buildings, and scenery. And, at ten half-hour-ish episodes, it's pretty substantial, too. It will probably be a bit too lecture-ish for many people, but if you want the DVD equivalent of an accelerated college-level art history survey, you might want to take a look at Mr. Sewell's DVD. Or, you can stick with Dora the Explorer -- your call!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 386 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Viewer's Guide
* Web Extras