By Joan Amenn
I am a fourth generation Italian American. The stories of my ancestors that I grew up with both mirror and contrast with how my ethnicity have been depicted on screen, much like anyone else’s cultural heritage when subjected to dramatization. Here are some of the films that have special meaning to me.
1. The Godfather Parts 1 & 2 (1972, 1974): I’m delving into controversy right off the bat by saying my favorite way to view both, and why I combined them into one entry, is the version that was adapted for television that spliced them together into one sweeping epic. Seeing Robert DeNiro take cues from Brando’s body language in the earlier film and incorporating them into his own performance is still a master class of acting. Pacino’s full descent into an isolated hell of his own making is best seen from the perspective of where his father came from as a small boy fleeing for his life from powerful men bent on wiping out his family. Michael becomes like the evil his father fled from in Italy.
As far as my own experience, my Sicilian grandfather was tall, blond, and blue eyed. In other words, he was the anti-Pacino. He was also not in any way connected to the Mafia. “The Godfather” saga succeeded in convincing non-Italian Americans that all Italians were involved in crimes of varying severity and we tended to be a violent lot. The stereotype that we are slow-witted laborers who are apt to think with our fists, knives, guns, or whatever heavy object is readily at hand is just embarrassing. Also, Italians were considered lazy, ignorant and “brown-skinned” when we first came to this country, which just shows that bigotry is a never-ending cycle of finding new targets to hate. While I love both films as being as close to having a time machine as I ever will to enter the world of my great-grandparents as they struggled to survive in Brooklyn, the reduction of my culture to a caricature still rankles.
Coincidentally, my parents knew a doctor and his wife who owned the house where the wedding scene was set in the first film. They were invited there several times for charity fundraising dinners and it was reportedly a gorgeous home with a large slate tile lined swimming pool. The stage that the Don and his daughter dance on covered the pool, which was considered too modern for the time period of the film.
2. Moonstruck (1987): Not all Italians love opera, but if you do and live in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera is like a holy place. Since this film is a comedy, the stereotypes have less sting and do have a grain of truth. There does seem to be an awful lot of Italian men who are obsessed with their mothers but in my experience, not so many who are as impetuously romantic as Nicolas Cage. Olympia Dukakis looks and sounds so much like my mother (she even has the same pink robe!) that I couldn’t help but love this film. The importance of family and food is pretty much pitch perfect, but the secret drive to be passionate about something or someone that is embodied by Loretta (Cher) and Ronny’s (Cage) relationship-now, that’s Italian!
3. My Cousin Vinny (1992): At its heart, this is a story about a child of immigrants who struggles to be successful and make his ancestors proud. Ok, so Vinny (Joe Pesci) doesn’t have his whole legal career quite worked out yet. The important thing is he’s trying to reach the American Dream, but to do that he has to work around innate American corruption fueled by those persistent stereotypes about Italians-again! Marisa Tomei is the ideal Italian American woman; smart, capable, supportive with a spark of ambition that she recognizes in her somewhat clueless boyfriend. Traveling outside of New York can be an eye-opening experience for an Italian American (ask me how I know) and this film taps into the fish out of water trope to set up hilarious scenes. Also, Fred Gwynne was a national treasure. My whole family can quote dialog from this film, and we do so often.
4. Goodfellas (1990): So, about that whole Mafia thing… There were a few members of my family (not Sicilian) who could possibly be described as “Goodfellas.” My great uncles were “bookies”, which is to say they arranged for betting and collected the funds for certain sports events and made sure those funds wound up in the appropriate hands. One of my great uncles also had a trucking route from New York City to Florida and routinely presented his brothers with items that “fell off of the truck,” kind of like the dresses that Jimmy (DeNiro, again brilliant) offers Karen (Lorraine Bracco). My uncles were not involved in the Lufthansa heist depicted in the film but I grew up in Queens at the time that it happened. Twenty-four hour diners, Chinese food restaurants tricked out with tacky Tiki bars and Cadillac Sevilles that seemed a mile long were all very much a part of my young New York Italian life. “Goodfellas” captures an era and a mentality among some Italian Americans that I know very well.
5. Rocky (1976): In which an Italian American tries to make a name for himself and in the process becomes an icon that all of America became obsessed with (and inspired a franchise.) In the space of just four years, Italians evolved onscreen from murderers to sports heroes thanks to Sylvester Stallone’s sincere story of a loser who just wants a little respect and maybe the love of a good woman (Talia Shire, who interestingly was also cast in “The Godfather.”) I have never heard a cinema audience become so loud in cheering for a character onscreen before, and have rarely heard such excitement since. Sure, the stereotype of the slow-witted laborer is still there, but there is a tenderness and compassion that is often missing in the depiction of Italian Americans in other films. It is the story of an Everyman who just happens to be descended from immigrants.