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A Letter to Elia -- Film Review

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TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Many people know that in addition to being an Oscar-winning director, Martin Scorsese is a major film buff and historian as well as a champion of film preservation. In the course of his long career, he has been involved with several documentaries celebrating other artists' films. The most personal of these is "A Letter to Elia," a one-hour tribute to Elia Kazan that played at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals.

Going into the film, one might be suspicious that Scorsese is engaging in some special pleading. When Scorsese and Robert De Niro presented an honorary Oscar to the ailing Kazan in 1999, the event generated a firestorm of controversy. Many in Hollywood never forgave Kazan for cooperating with the House Un-American Activities and supplying names of former Communists during Congressional hearings of 1952. Scorsese acknowledges this controversy in his documentary, but that is not his primary focus. He gives a brief overview of Kazan's life and career but has chosen to emphasize the personal influence that some of Kazan's best movies had on him when he was growing up and contemplating a career as a director.

While this doc includes excerpts from many Kazan movies, it concentrates on three that meant the most to Scorsese: "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden," and "America America." Very little attention is given to a couple of Kazan's most successful movies, "Gentleman's Agreement" (the Oscar-winning best picture of 1947) and "A Streetcar Named Desire" (which won three acting Oscars in 1951). So this doc is clearly not intended to be comprehensive but is instead a very personal testament. The longest section of the film is devoted to "East of Eden." Scorsese reports that he saw the movie repeatedly when it was released in 1955. In fact, he says candidly, "I stalked it." Its themes of family conflict and reconciliation as well as its baroque visual style clearly had a huge impact on him.

Scorsese was also overwhelmed by the naturalistic acting of "Waterfront" and by the autobiographical nature of "America America," which encouraged the budding director to believe that he could draw stories from his own Italian-American experience. Scorsese met Kazan for the first time in 1964 when he was a student at NYU. Later the two directors became friends, and Scorsese reports that Kazan liked some of the younger director's movies and disliked others. But the influence of Kazan's deeply emotional films on Scorsese's own work was incalculable.

Scorsese and co-director Kent Jones put together the film without any fuss. There are a few excerpts from interviews that Kazan gave while he was alive, and actor Elias Koteas reads a few sections of Kazan's autobiography. But there are no other people interviewed, and most of the film consists of Scorsese's own comments on Kazan's work, illustrated with very generous clips. However you may feel about Kazan's actions during the blacklist era, this film makes a convincing case for the power of Kazan's best movies, and it celebrates the continuity of art, demonstrating that no filmmaker exists in a vacuum. Scorsese expresses his debt to Kazan with affecting eloquence.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Directors-screenwriters: Martin Scorsese, Kent Jones
Producer: Emma Tillinge Koskoff
Director of photography: Mark Raker
Editor: Rachel Reichman
No rating, 60 minutes