I’m sure there are people out there who love movies and everything cinema as much as Martin Scorsese. But I don’t think there’s a single other person out there who can talk about their love of movies and everything cinema as well as Martin Scorsese. I’d seen and really liked Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Water Front before. But I didn’t actually appreciate them for how amazing and important they really are until I watched Scorsese’s documentary, A Letter to Elia. When it comes to Italian cinema and neo realism, I’ve seen even less than I have of Kazan’s work. Luckily, Scorsese’s got me covered there too, with My Voyage to Italy.
Opening with a brief history of Scorsese’s own family as his grandparents on both sides moved to New York from Sicily, he makes sure the “my” in My Journey to Italy is justified, without becoming indulgent. It’s a story not only common to Italian immigrants of Scorsese’s own generation, but of the entire post-war world, when so many European people sought better lives in various far off lands. For a seven year old Martin Scorsese in New York, the Italian films of the time were the link between the old world of his grandparents, and the new world he himself lived in.
Focusing on the Italian neo realism movement that emerged from the rubble of World War II, My Journey to Italy focuses mainly on the filmographies of directors Roberto Rosselllini, Allesandro Blasetti and Vittotio De Sica. By tracing their careers, and others, from the end of the war through the next 15 or so years, Scorsese doesn’t just show how these men evolved as artists, but how cinema as a whole evolved. And even how Europe was forced to reinvent itself in Hitler’s wake.
When Scorsese declares The Bicycle Thief (Thieves?) the most important moment in the entire history of cinema, it’s hard not to agree. These sorts of sweeping declarations get bandied about a lot when talking about the history of any art form. At best, they’re enthusiastic hyperbole by an unapologetic appreciator of the subject. At worse, they’re lazy, big statements used to make an impact when the actual content can’t. But here, it seems like a legitimate claim, backed up by Scorsese’s encyclopaedic knowledge of film.
Later, when he gets into the work of Fellini and Antonioni, I started to feel like I now know why these guys are important. When I watched La Dolce Vita, I liked it, but I didn’t really know why. After hearing Scorsese talk about its importance, I still probably only understand a fraction of it, but a fraction of Scorsese’s knowledge is still a shit load.
Scorsese is a film historian and academic, he’s the greatest living practitioner of the medium, and he’s a lifelong fanboy. So when Scorsese’s gives his take on any part of the industry or its history, it’s hard to not assume it’s the definitive.