Italian representation in film

by Pasquale Casullo

Two steps forward, two steps back

The Godfather (1972), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is undeniably a masterpiece. But while it celebrates some aspects of Italian culture, it perpetuates stereotypes that filmmakers continue to use today. “There are some filmmakers who only know stereotypes because it’s all they’ve seen,” says Francesco Giannini, a Montreal-based film producer. “They don’t actually know what Italians are like.”

The Godfather is so deeply etched into our memories that the impression it left influences the way we see and expect Italians to behave in North American cinema—and it may have led to life imitating art. “Seeing it in the 1970s, actual mobsters responded enthusiastically to the film, with many feeling as though it was a ‘how-to’ for conducting themselves,” writes Carl Sifakis in his book The Mafia Encyclopedia. In 2009, the Italian Institute of America released a report based on FBI statistics stating that less than 1% of Italian-Americans had any criminal associations. Yet, according to a national 2000 Zogby poll, 74% of Americans believed that Italian-Americans have ties to the mob.

North American filmmakers have always experienced difficulty with accurately portraying Italians in film—mostly because, before Coppola, it was non-Italian filmmakers making them. The Godfather was not the first Italian-subject film infused with stereotypes, but it had a greater impact than any film that came before it.

And spread stereotypes it did, including that Italians are violent, blue-collar workers, speak in broken English with an old-world accent, have associations with gangsters, have extra-loud family gatherings and that the men are misogynistic while the women are temperamental. This is topped by the belief that an expletive is always said—in Italiano—for either comic relief or dramatic emphasis.

Why is this so? “It’s laziness. It’s a crutch,” says Barry Hertz, The Globe and Mail’s film editor. “It fills a void where there should be more developed characters, but Hollywood found a formula that worked, so they stuck with it.”

During the first two decades of the silent film era, Italians—along with the other European immigrants—became a favourite motion picture topic. Generally, films portrayed European immigrants in playful ways as sympathetic people with odd, quaint and humourous customs. In My Cousin (1918), the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso plays the dual roles of two upwardly-mobile immigrant cousins: one an operatic tenor, the other a struggling—and ultimately successful—sculptor.

Over time, in movies such as The Organ Grinder (1909) and The Italian (1914), laughter gave way to seriousness. Once the First World War broke out in mid-1914, a change occurred—Italians were regarded as people to be feared. Italians turned into unsavoury characters in films and a focus on Italian gangsters took hold and never let go. It continued through the Great Depression, the Second World War and arguably goes on today. Why did it persist? “I think it’s because of money,” says Elio Castello, president of Montreal’s Evolution Film Productions. “When it comes to change, no one is really listening to anybody. Hollywood was always fascinated with crime. After all, crime meant conflict, conflict attracted audiences and with big audiences comes bigger profit.” Coppola’s personal take on the immigration experience in The Godfather was a way of telling the world how he saw his forbearers’ journey. “When the directors begin to self-represent, they turn the camera into self-definition,” says Alberto Zambenedetti, assistant professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto. Referencing the scene in which Peter Clemenza, a caporegime in Corleone’s family, makes a spaghetti sauce and adds ‘a little bit ’o sugar,’ Zambenedetti says. “No Italian would put sugar in tomato sauce. This scene becomes a self-actualization moment, when Coppola is saying, ‘Here is how we can define ourselves as Italians in America.’”

There are some films that can take a trope and turn it into something profound, such as in Big Night (1996), about two immigrant brothers who open—with some complications—their dream restaurant in New Jersey. Written by actor Stanley Tucci (who plays one of the brothers in the film) and Joseph Tropiano, it plays with identity politics while positively defining Italian culture in the public eye. A subtle film, it is filled with warm, amusing and touching echoes of a gentler time, well-drawn characters, as well as tiny, detailed elements (see: the timpano, an Italian delicacy that is the pezzo di resistenza during the extended dinner sequence.) “A sophisticated film asks important, intelligent questions,” says Zambenedetti. And there are the other films that go down a different path.

When his film Little Italy (2018) came out, Montreal-based writer Steve Gallucio was slapped hard with criticism for it being heavy-handed with stereotypes. A Romeo-and-Juliet-esque rom-com, Little Italy is about a destined, but initially doomed romance between Nikki and Leo, who come from feuding families—their fathers own rival pizzerias. There are complications, but the story finishes with a happy ending.

Little Italy is full of stale caricatures, leaving viewers with bad impressions. “It sounds as though every character is from 1950s Brooklyn, despite it being set in modern-day Toronto,” says Hertz.

Promoting the film last year, Gallucio said in an interview with Cult MTL: “I never think it’s too much, especially when writing about Italians. If I were to write it the way it really is, no one would believe it. They would think it’s a caricature. In fact, the only time that anyone thinks my characters aren’t caricatures is when I’m being interviewed by Italians! They totally get that this is the way we are.”

In some ways, we’ve moved forward in presenting Italians in film and, in other ways, we are trapped in the same spot, right where The Godfather left us in 1972. Even Don Corleone acknowledges this, in a way, when he shares a lament that his next-in-charge son Michael became a politician rather than following in the family business. There is safety in maintaining the status quo, but escaping it is necessary in order to evolve. Can we ever do so? “I believe there is hope,” says Giannini, “but it will take gutsy filmmakers to make a big change.” Perhaps for now, Nikki, in Little Italy, is the most honest about these current affairs: “There’s a reason why they call it Little Italy: because nothing ever changes here!”