Scorsese appears on camera periodically as host and narrates throughout. He begins by explaining his youthful exposure to Italian movies: watching subtitled films with his family on Friday nights in New York City. Within the world of those broadcasts, he saw the roots of his day-to-day existence in which the apartment buildings were the equivalent of Sicilian villages and bonds of blood overshadowed all else. Scorsese briefly touches on the pre-1945 industry, including some of the most beautiful, provocative and rarely shown clips on display here. There are also brief, beautiful excerpts from three films--1860 (1933), The Iron Crown (1941) and Fabiola (1949)--by Alesandro Blasetti, whose career stretched from the '20s all the way through the late '60s.
But these wonderful moments are just the prelude. Scorsese soon focuses on the directors who pioneered the postwar neo-realism that shook the world: Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D), Luchino Visconti (La Terra Trema) and, most of all, Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City and Paisan). Scorsese seems concerned with reasserting the merits of Rossellini, to whose daughter, Isabella, he was (incidentally) married for a few years. The second half of the film concentrates on later films by Visconti and Rossellini, as well as their younger colleagues, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.
In presenting the case for the films of these five directors, Scorsese doesn't simply whip through a few clips. In some cases, he presents "condensed" versions of as long as 15 minutes, narrating and commenting in voiceover. For the most part this technique works; he deftly makes the case not only for such acknowledged masterpieces as The Bicycle Thief and 8 1/2, but also for less widely seen films as Visconti's Senso (1954) and Rossellini's Europa '51, as well as films that were reviled at the time, among them Rossellini's 1949 Stromboli. Only in a few cases does Scorsese's technique actually turn out to be a disservice. Most notably in his discussion of Rossellini's Voyage to Italy (1953), the title with which he spends the most time. A story of a disintegrating marriage, Voyage to Italy, in Scorsese's presentation, doesn't enthrall. It's one of the few films on display that one doesn't want to rush out and rent.
The film appears to have been exhaustively researched. (I spotted only one minor factual error, a reference to Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths as a novel--a gaffe that could have been corrected during five minutes of relooping.) It is also, by its very form, exhausting. That is, it's simultaneously too short and too long. There is no way to really cover Italian cinema--or even merely "Italian cinema that Martin Scorsese loves"--in only four hours. At the same time, for most people, four hours pushes the outer comfort limits for viewing, especially when the remote control beckons. My Voyage to Italy is well worth the time, but brewing a pot of espresso (or a couple) isn't a bad idea, either.