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THE ITALIANS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  Linda Hunt
Director:  William Livingston
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.77:1
Studio:  Unapix
Features:  None
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  July 25, 2000

Film ***

The Italians is a documentary film from Discovery Channel Home Video that more than makes up with photography what it lakes in substantial information.  I was expecting maybe a walk through the ruins of historic Rome, reflections of the art of the Renaissance, or something along those lines.  Instead, what I saw was a loving look at a country and its people…a bit glorified, perhaps, like one of those “country” films you’d see at Epcot Center, but the results are as beautiful as any IMAX film ever produced.

The movie benefits from a variety of appealing hosts from part to part, each speaking English very well, and each reflecting and expressing the passion for their lives and work.  One recurring theme in the picture is that of carrying on age old traditions:  many of the people we meet have picked up the same work that their families have done for hundreds of years, claiming that such work is simply in their blood.

The film begins and ends with segments on the Ferrari, starting with a look back at her history, and finishing with a look forward at her newest installment.  More than a car to the people of Italy, the Ferrari is a living, breathing symbol of passion and power, and the unveiling of the newest model at the end plays like a major cultural event.  I’m not much into cars myself, so this was my least favorite part of the movie—however, I know a couple of people off the top of my head who would buy this disc JUST for the Ferrari footage.  Consider it a bonus if autos are your passion. 

The second part details a fashion show, which again, I wasn’t terribly interested in…it was more or less what you could see watching one of those programs on E!.  But starting with the third part, the film really grows into something special.

Part three is a tale of fishermen, and a 2000 year old ritual of harvesting blue fin tuna.  It is a way of life that is dying, the narration reports, because the fish are slowly disappearing from the Mediterranean.  But for now, the hunt is on, and teams of men take their boats and nets out for one of the most exciting fishing sessions I’ve ever seen.  These fishermen literally work on their nets year round for this one opportunity.  These nets stretch down for fathoms, and they use them to slowly corral these fish (some as much as 10 feet long and 100 pounds) into a single area, where, amidst the churning, foaming water and shouts of victory, these men work together to wrestle these giant creatures into the boats.  This is a spectacle a little more violent than you’d see watching early morning fishing shows on PBS, but it’s a part of the life…like I said, you’ve never seen fishing like this before.  This segment is so enthralling, it could easily stand alone as an excellent short documentary.

The next part of the film takes us to Venice, and what a beautiful journey it is.  Starting with the sound and camerawork, the movie puts the viewer at eye level from the gondola, where the ancient city stretches out far and wide all around.  We get to meet the people of Venice, most of whom tend the same shops or do the same work that previous generations of their family had done.  It comes across as a wondrous place where time seems to have stood still.

Part five follows a photographer and his crew as they brave the beautiful but treacherous Alps.  Again, we are introduced to a small town in the shadow of the mountains where little has changed over hundreds of years.  The photographer too, is carrying on the work of his family, and his collection of photos that go back to the beginning of the art form has documented the mountains, the towns, and the people beautifully and completely.

Finally, the fashion designer from part 2 takes the viewers on an escapade to a tiny island called Pantelleria, the southern most part of Italy, and what has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.  The water is bluer and clearer than anything I’ve ever seen, as established by a few amazing aerials.  The segment finishes with some wonderful underwater photography, where the host demonstrates the tradition of diving without air tanks…somehow, these skilled divers can reach a point of relaxation where their heartbeat and bodily functions slow to the point where they can hold their breath for ridiculous amounts of time…I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes, in a stretch of film with no cuts.

Director and producer William Livingston has created perhaps the ultimate Chamber of Commerce film with The Italians, and I mean that as a compliment.  He’s captured with his cameras a little piece of paradise on earth, and brought the experience to life in a remarkable way for the home theatre audience. 

Video ****

As mentioned, this film is as beautiful as any IMAX film I’ve seen, and that goes for the transfer as well.  Though not anamorphically enhanced, this widescreen image is still spectacular, and as close to perfect as you could ask for.  There are a few bits of older footage that show their age, particularly in the segment on the history of Ferrari, but what was actually filmed for this program is excellent.  Images are sharp and crisp, and amazingly detailed throughout, even objects in deep focus.  Look at the details of the buildings in Venice, or the face of the distant alps, or even the mist rolling off the coast of Africa in the background of the Pantelleria segment.  The coloring and lighting are simply breathtaking throughout:  always natural, bright, and without any signs of bleeding.  From the blues of the water to the whites of the snow covered Alps, to the green meadows accented with flowers, the images are extraordinary.  The print, likewise, is very clean, with no noticeable spots or scars, and no evidence of grain or compression (thanks to the dual layered presentation).  Like an IMAX film, this picture uses the photography not just to capture an experience, but to bring it to vibrant life.  From beginning to end, this picture was a pleasure to watch. 

Audio ***1/2

Though not as lively or dynamic as an action film, I have to say, I’ve had few experiences more pleasant than the subtle audio of the Venice shots, where the camera puts you in the boat and the 5.1 surround track puts you in the middle of the water.  It was such a terrific combination of picture and sound to realize an experience, I would have given the disc high marks if it were an hour and a half of nothing but this.  But there’s more, to be sure, and if you prefer some dynamics, you’ll really enjoy the fishing segment, which is nice and loud, and puts you right in the middle of the action.  Overall, the rear channels are harnessed sparingly, but perfectly, and though there’s not much use of the .1 channel, you really won’t miss it with this kind of movie.  The score is a solid plus, and the mix often makes use of all channels for a fuller, more lively musical experience. 

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Though not much of an educational experience, The Italians is a quality, loving look at a people and their country.  It may not be first choice for an evening’s entertainment, but I doubt any fan who puts this quality DVD in their player will be unimpressed.  It’s a beautiful celluloid journey, and one that you just may want to take more than once.