Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, July / August 2001
This report comes happily from the Cannes International Film Festival. Nothing I have ever seen explains the place of the documentary in film history—and why we all are so involved in the art form—than Martin Scorsese’s marvelous, four-hour documentary, Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (My Voyage in Italy), a two-part history of Italian cinema. This report focuses on Part I, which provides the most detailed explanation of the nexus between documentaries and fictional features.
Scorsese narrates the film himself. His set-up for the film explains the overall concept better than I ever could: “This is not a film for cinefiles; it is a recruiting film for cinefiles.” And recruit he does, through an intensely personal look at Italian cinema during the years from 1914 (Pastrone’s Nights of Cabiiria) to 1963 (Fellini’s 8 1/2).
He opens by showing us an old black-and-white 16-inch, RCA television, on which he first saw movies as a kid with his Sicilian-American family. “If I had never seen these films…I could be a very different person.” It was through film that Scorsese learned about his roots.
The first film he examines is Rossellini’s Paison (1946), which documents the liberation of Italy. Scorsese introduces the concept of neo-realism, which tries to come as close as possible to reality—the look and feel of the documentary. He discusses the influence of the documentary form, and how much of the motivation for this movement was a function of funding, which, for film production during and just after World War II, was not easy to come by.
The neo-realism movement was based on the documentary experience of Rossellini, who began his career making short films about animals. There is a straight line to De Sica’s groundbreaking Bicycle Thief and his more controversial Umberto D, which was so powerful that the Minister of Culture publicly criticized the film for “washing dirty linen in public.” It felt so real that its fictional nature was lost on the viewers.
Scorsese’s film is a marvelous documentary by itself. It does not rush you through any of the films he discusses. From IDA’s point of view, the film also points directly to the documentary as the root of neo-realism, which changed filmmaking everywhere, forever. Even after four hours and no dinner, the Cannes audience was at pitched excitement. If you have an opportunity to see this towering work, do not miss it. If you must make a choice between seeing Part One or Part Two, the first part most clearly reveals the documentary as the launching point for all modern filmmaking. Il Mio Viaggio in Italia is a heartfelt gift from Martin Scorsese to all of us.
Michael C. Donaldson