Wednesday, April 17, 2013

They shoot Italians, don't they?

In American cinema and literature, Italian-Americans are almost entirely absent, except as kindly and emphatic restaurant majordomos or, much more commonly, as mobsters. The problem is not that that Italians are sometimes mafiosi. Rather, the problem is that they are always mafiosi. As an Italian-American, I protest.

Part of the problem is the paucity of books about the Italian-American experience. There is only one classic Italian-American novel - Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete. The book chronicles the experience of an immigrant family that has settled in New York. The book explicitly deals with the immense prejudices that Italian immigrants, like so many other immigrant groups, were faced with on arrival to this country. But Christ in Concrete is alone.

Even now, I can think of only one Italian-American writer who is writing about the Italian-American experience. Christopher Castellani has written a trilogy, the latest volume of which just came out this year. I've read the first book in the trilogy, A Kiss from Maddalena, which is well written and interesting, and even quite moving at the end, but it is simply not of the same quality as Christ in Concrete.

For decades, the first book (and probably the only book) about Italian-Americans that reached a popular audience was Mario Puzo's The Godfather. It's not a total disaster, but it's nevertheless pulp fiction. The negative impact on the perception of Italian-Americans reached its zenith with the making of Francis Ford Coppola's film adaptation. I have to admit that The Godfather is a good movie, much better than the book, but I nevertheless have to condemn it because it cemented the already prevalent association of Italian-Americans with the mob.

From the original Scarface made in 1932 (and made, it is worth noting, in protest to the horrific mob-related violence in Chicago at that time) to The Sopranos today, portrayals of Italian-Americans are almost universally negative. Sometimes the character is complex and not all bad, the prime example being Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface, but the the character is either a criminal, an accessory, or a victim. Scarface in fact portrays the power struggle between the Italian-dominated mob on the South Side and the Irish-dominated mob on the North Side, though the protagonists of the movie are Italian. But Irish-Americans are not faced with a singular negative stereotype and thus the depiction of Irish mobsters doesn't have the same impact. There are dozens of movies that nostalgically embrace old Irish traditions and culture (Little Nellie Kelly, The Quiet Man, Yankee Doodle Dandy, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and many more) - not to mention the Kennedys.

Italians have Moonstruck and My Cousin Vinny. And that's it. Both of them are funny movies, but two movies alone don't undo the work of decades of mob films.

The stereotype of the Italian-American mafioso is not going to change until writers, filmmakers, and other artists begin to diversify the portrayal of Italian-Americans across disciplines. The rampant negative portrayal of my people is not acceptable, but Christopher Castellani stands alone. There is all the more need for an explicit push against the mafioso stereotype because it is so monolithic.

In the meantime, how about a sangwich? Now there is an Italian-American institution.

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