Friday, July 22, 2005

Why We Watch

Martin Scorsese in
My Voyage to Italy
Why We Fight was the umbrella title of a series of documentaries made by director Frank Capra as home-front propaganda during World War II. Martin Scorsese could have subtitled his 1999 documentary My Voyage to Italy (Il mio viaggio in Italia) Why We Watch.

Specifically, why we watch movies.

Mr. Scorsese, whose films as a director have gathered awards and acclaim, from Mean Streets (1973) to The Aviator (2004), takes us by the hand into the world of the Italian films he grew up with as an American son of transplanted Sicilian immigrants. Coming of age in New York City in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he saw the Neorealist renaissance of post-WWII Italian cinema through a tiny glowing screen, as filler programming in the early days of television. Even if he didn't fully understand the films of the likes of Roberto Rossellini at such a tender age, they moved him deeply.

They still do, because more than anything else, they demand of us our full and honest humanity and compassion for all God's children.

Scorsese's two-part documentary originally aired on Turner Classic Movies, on cable, in 2003, a follow-on to his 1995 A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. As far as I know, My Voyage to Italy has not aired since, nor is it scheduled to air again — much less in high-definition. (The documentary is available as a two-disc DVD set, which is how I'm viewing it.) So I am cheating a bit to include this post in my What's on HDTV? blog. I admit that.

Yet I think it a worthy inclusion because, in this day and age — as was mentioned in Parade magazine's "Personality Parade" column in the July 17, 2005, issue — movies are no longer made for adults. They're made for adolescents. And the souls of adolescents are not the most notable in the world for their compassion.

Today, whether adolescents or grownups, we are not accustomed to wearing our hearts out on our sleeve. After watching My Voyage to Italy, you may want to have your tailor get in touch with your surgeon.

Not that there's an ounce of sentimentality, schmaltz, or false pathos in the films Scorsese presents to us, or the way he presents them — just the opposite. For example, at the outset of the journey he leads us on (I admit I haven't yet gone further than Neorealism), he gives us his own personal tour of the films that were called Neorealist because they took an un-glamorized view of life as it was lived in a torn-up country, Italy, which had long been prey to fascism and then been overrun by German Nazis and American liberators in turn.

Under the circumstances, there wasn't much basis for glamorization. Which meant there was all the more basis for compassion, humanity, and fellow-feeling. Rossellini and other Neorealists like Vittorio De Sica showed everything, mean and noble, in Italian and European life at the time, and made the recovering world know that no man is an island.

What's more, they showed the world that movies, a once-fluffy art form, were uniquely able to reveal to us the totality of the human condition, warts and all, and thereby stir our tenderest feelings.

I have to admit, when it comes to tender feelings, or even to being open to seeing beauty amid ugliness and flowers amid dirt, I personally can't hold a candle to Martin Scorsese. My personal inclination is to try to kayo the ugliness and clean up the dirt, and only then — just maybe — appreciate the beauty.

Which is why I feel so glad to have this man of the gentlest possible voice and of the widest possible mercy sit beside me in the movie theater, in effect, and whisper in my ear what to look for and what to think about as the extended clips of old B&W movies in a foreign tongue (with subtitles) unreel before my eyes.

The movies Scorsese extols are powerful, but it's all to easy for an ugliness-kayoer/dirt-cleaner-upper from way back like me to resist their power at a pre-conscious level. Which is the reason, I suppose, that when Rossellini made The Miracle, a segment of his film L'Amore (1948), in which a woman give birth to a child she believes is the Christ child, Catholic officials denounced it.

The Miracle's main character, Nanni, portrayed by Anna Magnani, has more religious faith than sense or sanity. She's taken advantage of by a stranger, a wanderer she thinks is St. Joseph, who she imagines has come along in answer to her prayer. (The stranger is played by Federico Fellini.) Pregnant, she winds up an outcast. As we watch the tender scene in which Nanni has her baby, alone, without prospects, redeemed by the simple fact that she has brought forth the "miracle" of new life, Scorsese tells us what it all means to him:

Rossellini is communicating something very elemental about the nature of sin. It's a part of who we are, and it can never be eliminated. For him, Christianity is meaningless if it can't accept sin and allow for redemption. He tried to show us that this woman's sin, like her madness, is nothing in comparison to her humanity.


"It's odd to remember," Scorsese continues, "that this film was the cause of one of the greatest scandals in American movie history. When The Miracle opened at the Paris Theater in Manhattan, Cardinal Spellman, who was the cardinal of New York at the time, and the Legion of Decency — that was the Catholic watchdog organization — called the movie a blasphemous parody, and they mounted a campaign to have it pulled from the theaters."

The case wound up in the Supreme Court, which in 1952 struck down movie censorship based on allegations of blasphemy. That's important because it paved the way for the frankness of Scorsese's and other filmmakers' films in coming decades.

But more important to me than the legal precedent is what The Miracle says about compassion and humanity, sin and redemption. It say that the true Christian attitude is not to be such an ugliness-kayoer and dirt-cleaner-upper as I know I tend to be and as Cardinal Spellman and the Legion of Decency were back in their day. It is rather to see the beauty in each of God's creatures and to view their flawed humanity, not only with the utmost of honesty, but also with the utmost of compassion.

And to be reminded of that is, ultimately, why we watch movies.

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