MOVIE REVIEW | A Letter to Elia (2010)

Biographical documentaries can be tricky.  Generally, for someone to be interest enough in a particular subject to make a film about them, that interest is going to lead to a certain level of subjectivity.  They either love their subject so much, the film maker wants everyone else to share that love.  Or they are so angered by something, they want to make sure the subject doesn’t get away with it.  When one of the world’s greatest living directors makes a biographical documentary, there’s also the concern that it might be an indulgence that only they would ever get the green light to make.  I was a little worried that might be on the cards with Martin Scorsese’s A Letter to Elia, but I needn’t have worried. After all, Scorsese is one of the world’s greatest living directors.

Before watching this, I knew two things about director Elia Kazan.  He made On the Water Front and he named names during the McCarthy communist witch hunts.  Now, I know he was also responsible for a few other movies l’ve seen and liked, without ever knowing he was involved.  Movies like East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire.

A Letter to Elia comes overflowing with Scorsese’s adoring subjectivity, but that’s also one of its greatest strengths.  We get a quick recap of Kazan’s pre film making life.  As the son of Greek immigrants, as moderately successful actor, as the stage director who was the first to put up productions of classics Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire.  But all of this is kept to an absolute minimum so Scorsese can focus on what matters to him, the movies.

Scorsese takes us through Kazan’s filmography, but he focuses on two in particular, the two that affected him most.  On the Waterfront, and even more so, East of Eden.  Waterfront makes sense, it’s set in the neighbourhoods Scorsese himself grew up in.  It focuses on gangland power and corruption, the kinds of subjects Scorsese has become most famous for in his own career.

But it’s the passion Scorsese has when talking about East of Eden that really brings A Letter to Elia alive.  The stories of Scorsese’s own childhood and interactions with local small time organised crime are well documented.  And his relationship with his parents was covered in his awesome documentary Italianamerican.  But here, his personal connected to Eden tells a story of his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his brother, that had never even been alluded to in the several books I’ve read about Scorsese.

The pleasant surprise at this aspect of A Letter to Elia is almost outweighed by it’s one major shortcoming, the glossing over of Kazan’s dealings with communist witch hunts where he named eight people who had been fellow members of a communist organisation with Kazan in the 30s.  It basically comes down to Kazan felt like he had to choose between two shitty options, so he picked the easier one.  That’s about as deep as the discussion goes, whereas I could have watched an entire documentary dedicated only to that.

One of Martin Scorsese’s greatest strengths is his infectious enthusiasm.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you somehow love Henry, Jimmy and Tommy in Goodfellas even though they are terrible, terrible people.  And when he brings that enthusiasm to the documentary world, it’s even more effective.  If you watch A Letter to Elia, you’ll definitely want to dive into Kazan’s own filmography.  Even if those movies only have half the effect on you they had on a young Martin Scorsese, you’ll be more than satisfied.

A Letter to Alia
Directed By – Kent Jones, Martin Scorsese
Written By – Kent Jones, Martin Scorsese

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