Dir Martin Scorsese. Italy-US 1999. 246 min.

No history book about Italian cinema (and there have been several quite good ones) can accomplish what Martin Scorsese does in this four-hour documentary. For My Voyage To Italy brings the extraordinarily rich tradition of this national cinema to life by placing it in the socio-historical context in which it was made and the personal context in which Scorsese saw these films for the first time while growing up in New York's Little Italy. Vivid, perceptive, and surprisingly analytical, Scorsese's landmark documentary is named after Rossellini's 1953 film, Voyage In Italy (aka Strangers), which was a fiasco at the time, but was later rescued and re-evaluated by Cahiers Du Cinema, and is now considered one of the great films of all time. After showings at Cannes and Venice festivals - it also plays the London film festival in November - this non-fiction film is being released in select markets where it is bound to be appreciated and admired by arthouse patrons. TV showings, in toto or in parts, will follow, and video and DVD versions are highly recommended for educational institutions as an introduction to Italian film, which revolutionised world cinema and changed the very language and grammar of film.

Periodically facing the camera, Scorsese (born in 1942) recalls his childhood with his working-class parents and grandparents in Little Italy during the late 1940s and 1950s, which coincided with the most crucial era in the history of Italian cinema: the birth of Neo-Realism. Scorsese's documentary does not claim to be comprehensive and definitive, but simply serves as a tribute to the five great Italian film-makers who have influenced him the most and are directly responsible for his consistent passion for film: Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni (the only director who is still alive and active).

Most of these films were watched by the young Scorsese in the worst possible conditions: on a small black-and white TV set, poorly dubbed in English and often brutally cut by their distributors for censorship, running-time and other reasons. And yet their impact on Scorsese's psyche, soul, philosophical worldview and aesthetic consciousness has been indelible and long-lasting.

Deviating from most documentaries of its kind, My Voyage is not structured as a historical survey, but as a focused auteurist expose of each film-maker's background, recurrent thematic concerns, greatest films, the socio-economic circumstances in which they were made and the director's singular vision. Hence, the first film-maker to be discussed is Rossellini and the two films chosen are Rome, Open City (Roma Citta Aperta, 1945) and Paisan (Paisa, 1946). For each segment, Scorsese uses an approach that could be described as 'explication du text', singling out one or two long sequences and analysing in detail the way they evolve by calling the viewer's attention to the specific style used: camera movement, framing, acting and how all these elements combine to create a powerful emotional impact that cannot be reduced to any single factor.

Those who have met Scorsese and are familiar with his staccato, quick-fire speech will be surprised by the calm yet deeply emotional, contemplative yet sharp, tone of his voice-over narration, which accompanies the documentary from beginning to end. Amid observations about how a particular filmmaker worked, and the obstacles he had to overcome, are the most personal insights, such as the assertion that "if my family had not left Sicily [in 1909], I could have been one of those boys in Rossellini's Paisa, or De Sica's Shoeshine [1946] or The Bicycle Thief [1948]", all films cited by Scorsese for their incisive simplicity and disarming sincerity in depicting devastating poverty in post-war Italy. The one thing which is missing here is a reflection by Scorsese on why so many of the neo-realists' films featured children as their protagonists, who were more or less Scorsese's age when they were made.

The organising principle that divides the documentary into parts is often the director's career rather than any strict chronology. Hence, Scorsese follows De Sica's career after his neo-realist pictures, dwelling on his 1930s and then 1950s and 1960s comedies, as an actor and director, specifically The Gold Of Naples (1954), featuring the young and voluptuous Sophia Loren as a pizza maker's philandering wife and De Sica as zealous cardplayer upstaged by a young boy.

Scorsese then segues into a long chapter about Visconti, and how his aristocratic background not only deviated from that of the other Italian filmmakers, but also made his work richer, more complicated and complex, due to his Marxist leanings and Communist Party membership. Visconti is a particularly interesting figure, not only due to his controversial status among scholars, but also because he is credited for making what is considered to be the first neo-realist film, Obsession (Ossessione, 1942, based on James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice) before moving as far away as possible to a grand operatic style with Senso (1954) and The Leopard (1963). Here, too, one expects Scorsese to mention that his own adaptation of Age Of Innocence was an homage of sorts to Visconti's striking colour productions of epic yet flamboyant proportions.

The most direct link between Scorsese's own work and an Italian maestro is in the wonderfully narrated segment on Fellini, whose I Vitelloni (1953, aka The Young And The Passionate, or The Loafers) is not only responsible for Scorsese's breakout film, Mean Streets, but accounts for many American buddy-buddy and hang-out films, including Barry Levinson's best work to date, Diner. Other links that are left for the viewer to make are the influence of Fellini's frequent collaborations with Marcello Mastroianni, who served as his alter ego, and Scorsese's own creative pairings with Robert De Niro in what are arguably his best and most personal films: the trilogy of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

Although eloquent and informative, the discussion about Antonioni's bravura cinema, and his manipulation of time and space as expressions of his metaphysical characters in such films as L'Avventura, La Notte, and Eclipse, is not as personal as that on Rossellini. This is perhaps due to the pain (and empathy) that Scorsese feels for the cruel decline in Antonioni's career and stature, due to changing cinematic trends and personal scandals (first with Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman, then with Indian screenwriter Somali Das Gupta, both of whom bore his children out of wedlock).

My Voyage ends most fittingly with a tribute to Fellini's undisputed masterpiece, 8 1/2 (1963), which Scorsese describes as an international film event, a self-reflexive surrealist meditation on the plight of the artist in modern time whose inventive blend of dreams and nightmares, fantasy and reality, forever changed the nature of narrative cinema.

The true test of a good documentary is whether it motivates the viewer to know more about its subject matter. My Voyage To Italy achieves that and more: it reaffirms the urgent need to record the glorious chapters of world cinema for future generations of viewers, and it also validates the still undeniable power of cinephilia, now in vast decline, among a small coterie of movie lovers.

Pro co: Cappa Productions, Paso Doble Film