A Journey of Cinema, Not Flesh
As I've said before, I don't always know what movies are about before I bring them home from the library. Sometimes, it's because they are movies I've heard of long since but never actually knew the plot. Sometimes, as in this case, it's because I looked at the title and was intrigued, sometimes but not always in combination with a name attached to it. I had assumed, not unreasonably, that this would be the story of Martin Scorsese visiting his ancestral home in Sicily, walking the roads his ancestors walked and so forth. And that would have been an extremely interesting story. This, however, is also an interesting story, and it's one not everyone would think to tell. It is a curious fact that, while I don't generally care for Scorsese films, I am still interested in the story of what made him make the kinds of films he makes. The more so because it is a genuine love of quality film, a thing I admire even in directors I don't.
In short, Martin Scorsese is giving us an overview on the history of Italian cinema as it influenced his own filmmaking. It seems that the Scorsese family owned a TV earlier than a lot of other people, and a local New York channel played subtitled Italian movies on Friday nights. Young Marty watched them with his family, and he soaked in their style. This is not, therefore, intended to be any kind of comprehensive overview of the entire history of Italian film. With few exceptions, he is discussing post-war Italian film, Italian Neorealism, essentially ending with Fellini's [i]8 1/2[/i], which came out just about the time young Marty Scorsese was attending film school. But this, too, was a kind of film school for him, not to mention a way of absorbing the culture of his family's homeland. Some of the films are better known than others, but all helped to define the films of Martin Scorsese, and by extension every filmmaker who came after him.
With few exceptions, I can agree with much of what Scorsese has to say about the various films. I respect and admire the quality of his own body of work, even when I don't necessarily like the movies much themselves. I feel much the same about many of the movies he discusses here, though I do quite like a few of them. And certainly, now he comes to mention some of them, I can see their influence on his own film. I approve of film school training, but I think it works best to polish and refine a love and a talent which already exists. The defining characteristic of Martin Scorsese that matters relevant to today's film is that Martin Scorsese has loved film all his life. Yes, he mentions briefly the movies he saw in the theatres at the same time, but Italian cinema combines with Scorsese's connections to family and religion in a way the Hollywood product of his childhood cannot. Italian cinema helped him learn that he could do that, and film school taught him how.
Of course, you have to really care about Scorsese, Italian cinema, or for preference both to get into this movie. It is, after all, just over four hours long. It includes extremely detailed discussions of some of the films--a little too detailed in places; either I'd seen them and gotten bored or else I hadn't seen them and he gave away too much plot. However, every film considered to be an Italian classic of the era gets at least a mention. Scorsese even fills us in on the shocking-for-the-time relationship between Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman and how it relates to the changes in Rossellini's films. (Bergman, being Swedish, is a bit outside the scope of the documentary.) There is a bit of conversation about how Bergman caused Rossellini to "sell out" in the eyes of other filmmakers and why Scorsese doesn't agree with that assessment. And he dabbles a little in discussion of censorship, both in Italy and in the United States. It's a subject with which Scorsese has at least passing familiarity, after all.
The main place where I disagree with Scorsese is about Fellini. I have decided that, when I get to [i]Nights of Cabiria[/i], I will watch the whole thing and review it so I can get my rant about Fellini out of the way. (I have a lot to say about Fellini.) Therefore, I will not do it here. But I will say that I could write a pretty interesting paper about the evolution of the Guy Movie including some obvious parallels between Scorsese and Fellini. In their treatment of religion and family, yes. In their analysis of authority figures, yes. But particularly in their treatment of women. Oh, Scorsese is better than Fellini by a long shot. But I can't help wondering what it says about everyone concerned that not one of these movies is directed by a woman, that I noticed it, and that Martin Scorsese either did not or did not feel it worth mentioning. True, there are three or four guys who directed most of these movies, three or four leading lights of the Italian Neorealism movement. But these movements are almost all pretty much boys' clubs, and if you notice that, you get accused of being shrill.