Miramax // 1999 // 246 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 30th, 2004
"I saw these movies -- I didn't read about them or learn about them in school -- and they had a powerful effect on me, and you should see them." -- Martin Scorsese
The only voyage in Martin Scorsese's four-hour paean to Italian cinema is that of the filmmaker's heart and soul. The documentary's title alludes to director Roberto Rossellini's 1953 film Voyage to Italy (Viaggio in Italia), and proves remarkably apropos both because Rossellini is the filmmaker over whom Scorsese most fawns, and the documentary is less a survey of Italian cinema than a ruminative expression of Scorsese's personal experience of it. Rossellini's film concerns a middle-aged couple -- played by George Sanders (All About Eve) and Rossellini's wife at the time, Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) -- on a trip to Naples to settle the estate of an uncle who's just died. The evocative power of Italy, the weight of its history, brings voice to unspoken tensions between the couple and forever alters their lives moving forward. Similarly, the evocative power of Italian cinema and the way it resonated against Scorsese's childhood experiences in New York's Little Italy forever altered the way he perceived movies and shaped the filmmaker he became.
My Voyage to Italy begins with an overview of Scorsese family history including their Sicilian roots, life in Little Italy, and the filmmaker's recollections of watching neorealist and epic Italian films on television and how those movies acted as a lifeline for the older members of his family, maintaining their connection to the old country. The meat of the documentary is an examination of the master filmmakers of Italian neorealism and close readings of key films that influenced Scorsese's experience of and approach to cinema. The first half of the film is dominated by director Roberto Rossellini, whose early postwar films Open City (Roma, Città Aperta) and Paisan (both 1946) defined neorealist sensibilities and technique. The documentary presents long segments of each film with Scorsese providing academic and personal observations about them in voiceover. Other films from the Rossellini canon covered in great detail are The Miracle (1947), Stromboli (1949), Flowers of Saint Francis (1950), Europa '51 (1952), and Voyage to Italy. Part One of My Voyage to Italy ends with a look at movie star-turned-director Vittorio De Sica, his films Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1947), and Umberto D. (1952), and the influence of Charlie Chaplin's child-focused pathos on the director.
Part Two of the documentary picks up with the career of socialist-aristocrat Luchino Visconti, his apprenticeship as a crewmember on French filmmaker Jean Renoir's pictures (including The Lower Depths), and detailed looks at Ossessione (1943), and La Terra Trema (1948). But dissection of 1954's Senso -- with a focus on its mix of neorealism and romanticism, and the precision of Visconti's use of camera and music -- dominate this section of the film. Moving on to Federico Fellini, Scorsese explores neorealism's evolution as filmmakers bent it to their individual styles. I Vitelloni (1953), La Dolce Vita (1960), and 8 1/2 (1963) are offered as exemplars of the evolution of Fellini's style. The documentary ends with the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni and close readings of L'Avventura (1960) and The Eclipse (1962).
While My Voyage to Italy is a fascinating personal film by an important American director, its flaw is the specificity of its ideal audience. Scorsese's lengthy examination of a fairly large selection of films is so subjective it makes questionable viewing for anyone seeking a primer on Italian cinema and a recommended viewing list. Sure, those new to Italian movies will find plenty of academic context, a solid postwar timeline, basic information about the intellectual movements directing Italian filmmakers, and loads of specific trivia from the controversy surrounding Roberto Rossellini's extramarital affair with Ingrid Bergman during to the filming of Stromboli, to the critical uproar over De Sica's perceived rejection of neorealist principles in Senso, to the pressure Fellini faced in following up the international success of La Dolce Vita and how that pressure produced the hyper-reflexive 8 1/2. But Scorsese's readings of key moments from key films in his life as a viewer of movies are so emotionally specific it's difficult to recommend My Voyage to Italy to anyone who hasn't already seen the films of Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Fellini, and Antonioni. Because Scorsese tells us not only what films we should watch but, in effect, how we should to respond to them, his documentary becomes a dicey prospect for any neophyte looking to form his or her own opinion and emotional connection to the films. Conversely, Scorsese provides little concrete detail about how the films discussed shaped him as a filmmaker. He mentions, for instance, that Fellini's I Vitelloni was a major influence on his own Mean Streets but offers few concrete parallels between the two. The connections are obvious to anyone who's seen both films, but those who haven't are left hanging. Since My Voyage to Italy is less about Italian cinema than Scorsese's passion for Italian cinema, what one gets out the documentary depends on what one brings into it. Considering his position as a key postwar American filmmaker, there's plenty of value in his gushing over the movies that made him fall in love with moviemaking, but much of My Voyage to Italy's charm is likely to be lost on viewers who don't bring to the table a familiarity with both Italian cinema and Scorsese's films.
Miramax's DVD release spreads the long feature over two discs, and offers a transfer bound to generate controversy. Rather than a hodgepodge of framings, the image is offered at a uniform 1.85:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced. Clips from films shot at a 1.37:1 ratio are window-boxed within the 1.85:1 frame (meaning there are black bars at the top, bottom, and sides of the image), while clips from scope pictures (2.35:1) are matted within the 1.85:1 frame. It's an interesting decision because nearly all of the clips from Part One are in the 1.37:1 ratio, as are a majority of those in Part Two. It'll be no skin off the noses of viewers with widescreen monitors (the segments in 1.37:1 will look like standard, unstretched 4:3) or those with larger 4:3 televisions. But anyone viewing on a monitor 27-inches or smaller is likely to find the prevalent window-boxing a major aggravation. Other than the framing idiosyncrasy, the transfer leaves nothing to complain about -- the segments from the Italian films vary in quality, of course, but none of the source damage is unreasonable based on the age of the materials. The packaging indicates the audio is Dolby Stereo Surround, but it isn't. It's a stereo track, clean and sufficient considering most of the source tracks are mono. Two varieties of English subtitles are offered. The default setting subtitles Italian dialogue and titles, while a second option subtitles English dialogue as well. The bilingual among us have the option of shutting off subtitles entirely.
There are no supplements.
My Voyage to Italy is a warm and loving look at the power of movies, ideal for fans of Italian cinema and Martin Scorsese. Because of its intense subjectivity, all others may want to check out some of the films listed above, as well as Scorsese's movies before watching. The director's enthusiasm is infectious, but it has the potential of undermining the power of the films he loves for the uninitiated.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 246 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13