(Edward Guthmann – San Francisco Chronicle) It all started, Martin Scorsese tells us, on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan. There, in the Sicilian immigrant community where he was raised, Scorsese and his family would watch such classic Italian films as “Open City” and “The Bicycle Thief” on a 16-inch RCA Victor TV set.
Some days, Scorsese’s father, a presser in New York’s garment district, took his son to the movies. It was through movies, he says, that he and his father communicated, and it was through movies that Scorsese came to define the world and his place in it.
That background, illustrated with Scorsese’s home movies, is the framing device for “Il Mio Viaggio in Italia” (My Voyage to Italy), a superb documentary that airs today and June 23 on Turner Classic Movies. Directed, co- written and narrated by Scorsese, it’s a deeply personal love letter to Italian cinema — to his family, to the power of film to illuminate and change our lives.
“The more films I made,” Scorsese says in the introduction to his four-hour “Voyage,” “the more I realized what an indelible mark Italian cinema had made on me. . . . If I’d never seen the films I’m going to talk about here, I’d be a very different person and, of course, a very different filmmaker.”
And so, with Scorsese the passionate and affectionate guide, we reconsider “Paisan,” “Shoeshine” and “La Dolce Vita,” visit the forgotten silent epic “Cabiria” (it influenced D.W. Griffith‘s “Intolerance”), discover little-known directors Alessandro Blasetti and Giovanni Pastrone — and delve into minor and major works of the masters: Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti.
Scorsese personalizes his insights with memories of early viewings (“It was as if I’d found a secret door that led right to the art of the ancient world,” he says of “Cabiria”). He even shows the hand-drawn storyboards he created as a movie-mad kid — a sword piercing a gladiator’s chest, Romans filling the Colosseum — inspired by the Roman empire spectacles he saw.
Scorsese is a teacher, the best kind: He infects us with his enthusiasm, leads us beyond the obvious and superficial and illustrates points of connection between the past and present. He’s like M.F.K. Fisher writing about food, or Roger Angell writing about baseball: He adores movies but also understands their relationship to the world, the way they teach us about ourselves, about family and community and faith.
What surprised me the most about “Il Mio Viaggio” is the tone and pace of Scorsese’s narration. Instead of that jumpy, rat-a-tat delivery he’s known for,
he seems much calmer at this point in his life. There’s a softness in his voice — he almost whispers sometimes — a tenderness that the subject matter brings out in him.
During a gorgeous clip from Rossellini’s “Flowers of St. Francis” (1950), when St. Francis of Assisi silently offers comfort to a passing leper, Scorsese practically swoons. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another film that portrays the reality of compassion with such eloquence,” he says.
As he did in his earlier documentary “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” and the book that accompanied it, Scorsese isn’t lecturing or simply dispensing shrewd commentary. He opens himself to us — describing the seeds of his inspiration, sharing family memories, showing the points where art, mythology and personal experience intersect.
“Il Mio Viaggio in Italia” is a great experience, precisely because it’s so intimate and unguarded.