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A voyage through Italian cinema

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Ah, there's where I left my sense of decency: A scene from 'Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom.'

The administrators of the film program entitled "Your Voyage to Italy" --- at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre this month and next --- could scarcely have chosen two more distinctive works to initiate the series. The Rochester premiere of Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom (which screened on January 18), a highly controversial and little known film (at least in America) directed by the notorious Pier Paolo Pasolini --- the courageous choice of senior curator Paolo Cherchi Usai --- constitutes an explosive preliminary to an otherwise relatively orthodox selection of motion pictures from outstanding directors. Martin Scorsese's My Voyage to Italy, another Rochester premiere (it was shown January 19), serves as a valuable and really quite brilliant introduction to the whole series and to Italian cinema in general.

            The Pasolini picture, which understandably arrived with more warnings than an iodine bottle, deals in a wildly metaphorical manner with a forgotten moment in history: the brief existence of the Fascist Republic of Salò, in northern Italy, after the overthrow of Mussolini in 1943. Pasolini, an openly gay, Catholic Communist, translates the facts of that event into a sort of demonic Decameron, in which a committee of four men, assisted by an armed militia, kidnap 16 adolescent boys and girls and imprison them in a palace. There, while a gaggle of superannuated strumpets regularly recite personal histories of sexual depravity, the committee and their soldiers systematically humiliate, degrade, rape, torture, mutilate and, ultimately, slaughter the young captives.

            Whatever its political and philosophical intentions, its metaphors and allegories, the movie appears the product of a seriously unbalanced mind. The endlessly reiterated scenes of one or another heavily painted bawd recounting, with dramatic embellishments, some incident of decidedly perverted sex in order to inspire the smirking older men to practice much the same activity on some young person, reach an unpleasant point far beyond disgust. Mixed in with casual cruelties, bondage, and whipping, Pasolini shows constant images of anal sex --- the gentlemen on the council of rulers both pitch and catch, so to speak --- occasionally interrupted by episodes of transvestism and pseudointellectual discussions of sexual libertinism and bloodshed in the manner of the Marquis de Sade, whose treatise inspires the film's title.

            The most revolting sequences of Salò, probably even worse than the scenes of torture and butchery, involve excrement, which the characters dwell on with absolute passion, discussing its production, consistency, and fragrance in great and gleeful detail. The movie attains a unique summit of repulsion in the scenes of the characters dining on feces and, of course, forcing their captives to share in the feast. Nothing in any movie I have ever seen approaches those moments in their capacity to sicken even the strongest stomach and shock even the most insensitive viewer. The average gory horror flick seems tame and innocent after Pasolini's film.

            Martin Scorsese's My Voyage to Italy provides a most welcome change of pace and a most appropriate introduction to the series. Not only an accomplished director, Scorsese is also a fine scholar and historian of the cinema, and his long --- more than four hours --- and eloquent survey of Italian cinema matches his feature films in passion and intelligence. The movie covers the director's own life, along with his lifelong love for Italian movies and his connections to Italy itself, Italian history, and, above all, the history of Italian film.

            Instead of employing a strictly chronological approach, as has been done before in previous documentaries, Scorsese chooses to focus on a number of important directors and movies, providing some attention to the historical contexts of their works, their influence on world cinema, and their meanings for his own life and art. Especially concerned with the young people who probably don't know the great ages of Italian cinema, he essentially creates a short course on Italian film --- a combination of textbook and anthology, and even an incidental introduction to his own aesthetic and beliefs.

            A fine interpreter of the films he loves, Scorsese includes substantial chunks of the movies he discusses, summarizing them while showing the long, important excerpts, so that the audience, in effect, acquires the whole experience of a great many motion pictures. He deals with the most famous Italian filmmakers of a couple of generations, beginning with the Neo-Realists Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, and proceeding through Visconti, Fellini, and Antonioni. Along with Rossellini's famous, revolutionary Open City, he resurrects the director's remarkable Francesco, Giullare Di Dio (translated as The Flowers of St. Francis), which will be shown as part of the series on February 6. Scorsese also discusses at length, and most movingly, the wonderful De Sica film Umberto D, which will be screened at the Dryden on January 29.

            Showing a considerable amount of the movie and deftly summarizing its plot and characters, Scorsese recalls the impact of the early Fellini picture I Vitelloni --- a film made before, as Scorsese says, Fellini became Fellini, the director of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. Scorsese mentions how deeply it influenced his own work, above all, his breakthrough picture, Mean Streets. His discussion of Antonioni's L'Avventura, La Notte and, especially, Eclipse, add not only insight, but also a new quality of emotional engagement to the experience of those difficult, brilliant, but seemingly frigid films. He also, in effect, introduces to a whole new audience a number of now sadly obscure or virtually unknown movies by the directors, including Visconti's beautiful Senso, Rossellini's Stromboli and Europa '51, and De Sica's Gold of Naples.

            Although the series at the George Eastman House will seem too short to many lovers of film --- Italian film, in particular --- it showcases both familiar and unfamiliar works. Scorsese's documentary, moreover, presents an excellent introduction to the range of Italian cinema in the most thorough, substantial, and enjoyable form imaginable. The director resembles something like the ideal professor of film studies ---learned, insightful, clear, eloquent, and thoughtful. His presentation employs no insider jargon or fashionable cant, but reflects an awareness of how films are made and how they reflect not only their own history, but also their time and place. Above all, Scorsese addresses the audience and the movies with a palpable passion for his subject. These films mean a lot to him, and he wants them to mean a lot to us.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

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