“For quite some time, Martin Scorsese‘s personal passions and enthusiasms have been channeled into his documentaries, not his dramatic features,” Indiewire‘s Todd McCarthy wrote four days ago. “His first two major documentaries about the cinema, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy, were surveys shot through with personal insights. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan thrived on Scorsese’s enthusiasm for another artist and his great feel for music and ’60s New York, while Shine A Light, a concert film featuring The Rolling Stones, felt more like a technical exercise.
“But A Letter to Elia cuts closer to the bone than anything Scorsese has done since the 1990s; by mixing the authenticity of his initial emotional response to Kazan’s films with his vast cinematic erudition, and by deciding to largely jettison the usual documentary baggage of archival footage, interviews with associates and Hollywood history factoids, Scorsese and Jones have been able to concentrate nearly all their attention on that which is of the greatest value in Kazan’s work and to throw an intense spotlight the man’s complexity and distinction as an artist.
“Given how passionately this Letter advocates for Kazan’s ability to make highly personal films within a commercial context, the great irony that emerges from the documentary is that Scorsese himself has ceased doing the same himself.
“Which was the last Scorsese feature that felt at all personal? In my book, the last fully successful one artistically was Casino, released 15 years ago. Bringing Out the Dead, in 1999, was indisputably shot through with themes meaningful to Scorsese, centrally the need of the main character to find salvation through saving lives. But perhaps that film’s failure was sufficiently discouraging to move the director toward the more grandiose productions he’s subsequently undertaken, films of varying quality but, the Oscars for The Departed notwithstanding, not the sorts of things that made him the most admired American director for more than 20 years.”