Martin Scorsese's voyage through Italian cinema

It is always a major treat when the elite of the film industry deign to dabble in television.

Martin Scorsese's My Voyage to Italy (Turner Classic Movies, June 7, 8 p.m. to 12:15 a.m.) is the most stimulating autobiographical documentary I've ever seen.

Written and directed by the maestro, Scorsese also narrates and hosts the film, taking us through the history of Italian cinema with special emphasis on Italian neorealism and its effect on world and American cinema – including his own.

What is great about this work is Scorsese's explication of Italian cinema's historical and aesthetic importance, the personal journey each movie took him through in his youth, and his great affection for them and their makers.

Moreover, he saw them all first on television.

Scorsese chose to shoot his film in black and white to match most of the neorealist movies and to approximate the television experience he had as a child in New York City.

As he narrates the stories of each film, he provides telling details in each of them that influenced, guided, or uplifted him. He's coaxing us to understand the way cinema works, and the revelations of human experience of which it is capable.

"I wanted to shake the dust off film history and ground it within common, everyday lived experiences," Scorsese has said.

"Ultimately, I wanted to do with these films what the best teachers did for me, which was to create a sense of continuity between the past, the present, and the future."

And he succeeds marvelously. Taking us through the work of Vittorio De Sica ("The Bicycle Thief," "Umberto D"), Roberto Rossellini ("Open City," "Paisan"), Luchino Visconti ("La Terra Trema," "Senso"), Michelangelo Antonioni ("L'Avventura," "La Notte"), and the greatest of the lot, Federico Fellini ("8 1/2," "La Strada"), Scorsese teaches us how to watch movies, how to understand another culture, and how that culture has influenced our own.

The "little Italy" he grew up in, like so many other cultural enclaves, melded into American society and produced some of America's greatest artists.

This can be dangerous TV. Watch his film and pretty soon we might notice the visual poverty of most television, the simplistic ideas in most TV dramas, and the lack of human decency, civility, and dignity in TV comedies and "reality" game shows.

It's not that "the movies" constitute a greater art form than TV, it's that these movies jar the heart, cause us to question how others live, how we treat each other, and what justice is about.

The four-hour documentary – uninterrupted by commercials – begins a festival of 20 Italian films being shown on TCM on Fridays throughout June, including many of the films Scorsese talks about. Some of these are hard to find at the video store, so fire up the VCR, and get ready to record.

* * *

It ain't Shakespeare, but King of Texas (June 2, TNT, 8-10 p.m.) takes one of the Bard's greatest tragedies, "King Lear," and turns it into a western. And the plot works well as a melodrama. Without the poetry, that's exactly what it is.

Shakespearean actor and "Star Trek" alum Patrick Stewart plays the proud, foolish old king who mistakes words of affection for the real thing. John Lear is a ruthless cattle baron who finds himself growing weary of the mundane tasks of running his huge ranch.

When he calls his three daughters together, the eldest, Susannah (Marcia Gay Harden), speaks eloquently of her affection for her father. Rebecca (Lauren Holly) follows suit, but young Claudia (Julie Cox) knows how bogus her sisters' stated affections are and wants no part of the deception. Abusive dad divides the kingdom between his two "good" daughters and casts Claudia out. He almost instantly rues the day.

The part of the "fool" (a jester in the king's court) here is an ex-slave named Rip, played by David Alan Grier. My only complaint about any of these performances is that Grier is not given a bigger role – he's a highly talented comedian and is given little scope for his antics.

It's fun to see how the "Lear" plot plays out set against a Texas landscape. But don't expect any sudden insights into the grand scheme of human existence.

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