Scorsese Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, until September 18.
Martin Scorsese’s documentary My Voyage to Italy (1999) takes its title from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954), the story of an English couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) whose trip to Naples first reveals the flaws in their relationship, then unexpectedly reforges it. Scorsese’s four-hour film is a brilliant introduction to the work of the great Italian directors, but it also has an autobiographical dimension, relating how his own discovery of Italy began in a modest apartment in the Italian quarter of postwar New York, where the masterpieces of Rossellini, Fellini, Visconti and others were first encountered in scratchy black-and-white versions on late-night television.
Scorsese’s discovery of Italian cinema and the tight-knit but correspondingly narrowminded social world of Sicilian immigrant families within which he grew up were seminal to his work as an artist, and it is appropriate that the fascinating survey of his work at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne begins with an extract from this documentary. The selection screened, in fact, is not so much about Italian cinema — with its ambitious aesthetic vision — but about the world of his childhood, whose horizons were very limited.
Scorsese’s parents came from the region of Palermo in the northwest of Sicily; not from the elegant baroque capital that Goethe had admired — so badly damaged by Allied bombing in World War II and never fully restored — but from outlying villages, home of the insidious mafia culture that arose among the illiterate and exploited peasantry before spreading to become a bane to the whole island.
The Sicilians who migrated to the US, as Scorsese relates, re-created their culture in the streets of New York, from social and family customs to religious processions to criminal or quasi-criminal networks of corruption. They even remained clustered together in village groups, so whole buildings would be inhabited by migrants from the same village, who brought with them their age-old memories of loyalties, rivalries and resentments.
This was the world of Scorsese’s childhood, the environment from which he could escape, through the cinema, into the entirely different and infinitely more sophisticated milieu of journalists, intellectuals and celebrities in Fellini’s Otto e mezzo (1963), or the refined but amoral bourgeoisie in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), or the intellectual and world-weary aristocracy in Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (1963), a great film based on Lampedusa’s 1958 novel about Sicily at the time of its de facto annexation by the newly formed kingdom of Italy.
Yet however much these films opened his eyes and helped to make Scorsese the artist he is, he has rarely attempted films about the upper classes, intellectuals or aristocracy. His characters remain those of the world in which he grew up, amplified and exaggerated no doubt, turned into protagonists of his own kind of morality play, but nonetheless at bottom illiterate Italian peasants with primitive moral instincts. In fact, Scorsese seems almost fixated on a certain kind of character who is not only a moron but a psychopathically violent moron.
Nor are his films set in Italy; they are in the US, mostly in New York, and they are in some deep sense about America. Perhaps that is ultimately why they are so violent, because few of the great Italian films he admires, even Rossellini’s Roma, Citta aperta (1945) or Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960), are anything like as explicit in their representation of physical brutality. We don’t need to be reminded about the attachment of American lower classes to their firearms — something inconceivable in any other modern society — but it is instructive to consider their representation in cinema: for it is as rare to see an American film without a gun as it is to see a European film with one. You don’t carry weapons in a civilised society that is properly functioning under the rule of law. Nor do you go about armed in a community of fellow citizens that you trust. In happier times, even policemen in Britain and Australia were unarmed. Carrying weapons argues not only paranoia and distrust but ultimately a lack of faith in the social structure as a whole.
It is this sense of social collapse and the everpresent threat of the outbreak of primal savagery that Scorsese must derive from the American environment.
Yet he most often chooses to see all this through the Italian world to which he feels viscerally connected: thus he returns to his Italian mobsters, but they are Italian mobsters in the US and they speak of American anxieties. They also allow him to lend a sharper moral edge to these fears. Countless American mass entertainment films rehearse scenarios of paranoia and bloody revenge, but the threat usually remains two-dimensional and external. Scorsese’s characters, linked by intimate familial or tribal bonds, allow him to evoke a more intimate and personal level of violence and cruelty.
Significantly, even most of his regular actors, such as Joe Pesci, are Italian, apart from some such as Harvey Keitel, who was a friend from film school. Robert De Niro appears in many of Scorsese’s most important films, including Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991) and Casino (1996). De Niro can even play characters who are not meant to be Italian, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Max Cady in Cape Fear, subtly bringing them back into Scorsese’s imaginative world.
That world is one in which men are isolated and consequently deranged, as in these last two films — one a kind of twisted idealist and the other a psychopathic murderer — or involved in a tight, even tangled network of family and tribal relationships. The point is emphasised in the wedding scene in Goodfellas, where the
bride is overwhelmed by the number of relatives she is meeting. The family is always by definition extended; there are always different generations at the table, always the nonna making copious quantities of food, even if there are telling scenes, suggesting the fraying of tradition, such as De Niro’s character pouring bottled tomato sauce over the pasta before pronouncing it delicious in Goodfellas.
Apart from home life, the men spend most of their time together, managing the businesses of organised crime or sitting around drinking and playing cards. Scorsese has an uncanny feel for the kind of excited, nervous sociability of morons boasting about acts of thuggery to impress their companions, and for the exact tone of the banter that surrounds these tales. There is a famous scene in Goodfellas when the young protagonist doesn’t quite get that tone right and the banter turns suddenly to menace.
It is a favourite trope in Scorsese’s films to have sudden, often lethal violence arise out what seemed to be conviviality. One moment a clap on the shoulder, laughter at a joke, the offer of another drink, the next a bullet in the head, a knife in the belly or a needle through the back of the neck. Murder is always treacherous; the decision to kill another may be taken long in advance and hidden behind laughter, jokes, brutal banter about others, until it is the right time to strike.
This paradox of tight-knit families and seemingly tight-knit networks of friends who in principle must be trustworthy and trust each other, yet at the same time of utter brutality with no vestige of pity or fellow feeling, reveals the essential nature of this social environment. These people recognise no civil society: they live in a tribal community, preying on society as parasites. And they have no more idea of humanity than of civil society; you exist merely as a function of the tribe and the only way to leave it is as a corpse.
The members of these criminal tribes cannot, by definition, be very conscious or selfaware. But it is not interesting to make films about people fixed in a state of unconsciousness because there can be no development. Some of those who become prominent in these underworld communities, however, have greater competence and cunning, and perhaps even a measure of insight into what they are doing. These are the characters who become the protagonists of the films.
They are often outsiders, too, who are not fully accepted into the tribe and whose rise will therefore inevitably be followed by a slide into moral decline or self-destruction. In the most dramatic case of all, Travis in Taxi Driver, who is isolated with no tribe to support him, becomes more and more alienated from his world and intent on destroying it but succeeds only in destroying himself.
Scorsese’s stories of breakdown, with their roots in the ancient Mediterranean culture of Sicily, sometimes recall Greek tragedy, except that there is less moral clarity at the outset and less existential recognition gained in the end. Instead, the so-called tragic flaw has been replaced by a sense of sin and guilt in this island that is so deeply Catholic, or at least tribally and ritually Catholic: the huge painted images of the Virgin Mary and the dead Christ that are carried in procession on Good Friday recall the mother goddesses and dying gods worshipped in the East for centuries before the classical age.
In this world, the protagonist is part tragic hero and part scapegoat who must suffer and die to expiate the deep-rooted sins of the tribe. The final, appalling fight scenes in Raging Bull, when Jake La Motta is all but killed by his opponent and can no longer offer any resistance, recall a ritual sacrifice, and it is no surprise the director later (in 1988) filmed Nikos Kazantzakis’s story of the death of Christ.
So we can see why Scorsese’s films are so violent: they are extreme, cathartic visions of social breakdown, using mob life as a metaphor for a wider reflection on the world. The effect is extremely skilful and, as the later part of the exhibition emphasises, owes much to the brilliant editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked with him since Taxi Driver.
But for all that, an excess of violence leads to desensitisation rather than conviction. Scorsese’s treatment of sexual tension, in comparison, is far more allusive and thus more effective. To take only one example, Cady’s hypnotically sinister encounter with the young daughter of the family in Cape Fear is extremely restrained, almost all verbal until he puts his finger between her lips, reducing her to submission and self-abasement. The moment is breathtaking in its economy and disturbing in the way it draws the viewer in by tapping memories and associations, forcing us to become complicit in and thus uncomfortably aware of a transgression of decency.
From top, Martin Scorsese with Asa Butterfield during the shoot for 2011’s Hugo; Scorsese and Goodfellas stars Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino and Joe Pesci (1990); the filmmaker with his parents, Charles and Catherine (1974)
Jodie Foster, De Niro and Scorsese on the set of Taxi Driver (1976), above; props from Gangs of New York (2002), above right