Anna Camaiti Hostert and Anthony Julian Tamburri, eds. Screening Ethnicity Cinematographic Representations of Italian Americans in the United States.
Hostert's and Tamburri's edited volume, Screening Ethnicity, is the first comprehensive entry of what promises to be an important field of Italian American Studies. The essays that it anthologizes explore the visual construction of Italian American ethnicity and identity in a vast corpus of films. This corpus, which ranges from the silent era to the recent HBO mini-series The Sopranos, includes the works of Italian Americans directors, such as Capra, Cimino, Coppola, Scorsese, and Savoca, and non-Italian Americans, including Jewison and Lee.
In the introduction, Hostert and Tamburri briefly comment on the genealogy of their volume before mining to a brief discussion of the critical gap surrounding the subject of visual Italian America. Having just recently assembled reading material for a course dedicated to the representation of Italian Americans in Hollyood cinema, I must agree with the editors' assessment. In fact, besides a handful of essays, the only book-length treatments to date are Casella's Hollywood Italian, Lourdeaux' Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America, and D'Acierno's important chapter "Cinema Paradiso," from his The Italian American Heritage.
The first section, "Specific Themes, Multiple Voices" collects essays that, although of a general nature, share a common concern with the exploration of the reasons why Italian Americans have often been constructed as others along gender, racial, and class lines. The first essay, Francesca Canade Sauteman's "Grey Shades, Black Tones," examines the process of racial acculturation undergone by Italian American immigrants who, from their earlier association with nonwhite groups at the end of the nineteenth century, came to seek a white form of identity. Sauteman's essay also discusses the representation of Italian Americans in Black cinema, particularly with regards to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and Summer of Sam (1998). The essay concludes with an examination, inspired by some key pronouncements of bell hooks, of the co-implication of racial and gender discourses. Gender is also at the center of the anthology's second, Dawn Esposito's "The Italian Mother," which provides a discussion of the image of the mother and its effects on the female spectator. From the critical lenses provided by Hirsh and De Lauretis, Esposito moves on to discuss the hegemonic trust at work in the visual construction of female characters in Jewison's Moonstruck (1987). Jewison's film is then contrasted to Coolidge's Angie (1994) and Savoca's Household Saints (1993) where Esposito locates a subversion of the discourse of patriarchy. The two essays that follow Esposito's contribution address the association of the Italian American male with organized crime. In his "A Class Act," Fred Gardaphe explores the meaning of this association for American culture. He argues that the "mafioso's" function as the other was necessary to American society to define its proper code of behavior and system of values. Gardaphe also describes the use of the gangster figure in the works of Italian Americans, such as Puzo's best-selling novel The Godfather (1969) and Coppola's film of the same name. The essay closes with a brief description of the television series The Sopranos. Ben Lawton's essay, "The Mafia and the Movies," seeks to answer the question of why Italian Americans have been singled out as being synonymous with organized crime. To that effect, Lawton describes a convergence of causes, such as poor marketing, bad timing, and a set of unfortunate circumstances that he terms "iella," the Italian word for bad luck.
The last two essays of this section of the anthology, penned by Bruno Roberti and Vito Zagarrio, represent two complementary attempts at a broad theorizing of Italian American cinema. Expanding upon Bazin's notion of an "impure cinema," in the "The Eyes of the Other" Roberti argues that the specificity of this production might lie in its otherness, here intended as a contamination of identity that affects the purity of point of views, perspectives, and positions. Roberti substantiates his claim by analyzing films by De Palma, Scorsese, and Cimino. Zagarrio's "The Italian American Imaginary" provides a broad categorization of visual Italian America by drawing from the categories of generational criticism as well as those of genre and ethnic studies. As a result, the essay establishes a model from which authors as diverse as Lee, Scorsese, Capra, and Coppola can be described.
The second section of the volume bears the title of "The 'Bad Boys' of Italian/American Cinema" and contains five essays that focus on the work of single directors. Dorothte Bonnigal, in her "Men in (G)love(s)," examines Scorsese's permeability to the works of Italian auteurs and proposes a most convincing reading of the presence of Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) in Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) by a close comparison of the diegetic paradigms of the two films. In so doing, Bonnigal certainly confirms Roberti's assessment of the process of hybridization at work in Italian American cinema. Robert Casillo's "Pariah of a Pariah Industry" offers a broad overview of the history of illegal and legalized gambling in Nevada before turning to Scorsese's Casino. From Caillois' and Girard's notion of violence and the sacred, Casillo argues that Scorsese's film discloses how the world of illegal gamblers and mob investors ultimately functioned as a pariah that had to be expelled in order to allow for the flourishing of a legitimate industry. The following two essays are both devoted to the work of Quentin Tarantino. While Abruzzese and Esposito, in their "The Surname Tarantino," argue that the director's ethnic cinema is the product of a fusion of the hypercodification of Hollywood cinema and the formalist tradition of European ascendance, the contribution by Fausty and Giunta, "Quentin Tarantino: An Ethnic Dilemma," explores the problematic inclusion of this filmmaker in the corpus of Italian American directors. It is these critics contention that, in an age of globalization and late capitalism, transnational, hybrid identities, such as Tarantino's, are forcing critics to problematize their inquiries into ethnicity.
Rebecca West's essay, "The Land of Nod," is a valiant attempt to rescue the films of Abel Ferrara from what she describes as "in-your-face filmmaking with requisite guns, sleaze, and mayhem" (222). To argue her position, West explores the religious, social, and ethical elements contained in Ferrara's vast production that includes, in addition to gangster films, also horror, love, and science fiction stories. West concludes her essay by reflecting upon the Italian American-ness of Ferrara that she ultimately locates in the director's Catholic sensibility.
The last section of this anthology, "Different Voices, Different Tones," collects a more heterogeneous body of writing that deal, among other things, with less known directors and short films. The first contribution to this section is Anna Camaiti Hostert's "Big Night, Small Days." Her essay provides a detailed analysis of the process of Americanization which, in Scott's and Tucci's Big Night, functions as a symbol for the loss of cultural purity and authenticity. Yet, Hostert also wonders if the loss of authenticity in multiple identities might not be a more suitable alternative for today's society. Scott' and Tucci's film itself might also point in this direction since it centers around the image of the "timpano," the famed main dish composed of unmixable elements that is served during the crucial dinner scene. Edvige Giunta's essay, "The Quest for True Love," focuses on Nancy Savoca's True Love (1990) and Household Saints (1993), as Giunta argues that these comedies probe the nurturing as well as the claustrophobic aspects of Italian American domestic life. Karen Pinkus's "New Jersey Drivers !@#%*!," examines the HBO series The Sopranos. After a broad presentation of the series's setting, characterization, diegetic, and narrative structures, Pinkus contends that the appeal generated by the show rests upon the ethnic authenticity that is shared by both fictional characters and contemporary spectators. By so doing, the series finally questions the assumption that ethnic specificity can only be symbolized as a site of exclusion and confinement. Contributions by John Paul Russo and Anthony Julian Tamburri follow. Russo's "An Unacknowledged Masterpiece" is devoted to an exploration of Frank Capra's A Hole in the Heart (1959). Since Capra's film, which includes mostly Italian American characters and subject matter, is something of an anomaly in the director's production, it leads Russo to explore the implications of its ethnic content. Of interest is also Russo's detailed account of Capra's process of the Italianization of Schulman's play My Fiddle Got Three Strings (1950), from which his A Hole in the Heart derives. The last essay, Anthony Julian Tamburri's "Spectacular Imagery in Italian/American Short Films" provides an interesting analysis of three recent short films: De Cerchio's Nunzio's Second Cousin, Mariarosy Calleri's Uncovering, and Madonna's Like a Prayer. Although produced and marketed in very different contexts, these three shorts exemplify the way post-1980s is addressing issues that have often been taboos in Italian American culture. While Tom Cerchio's Nunzio's Second Cousin confronts biracial homosexuality, Madonna's Like a Prayer blends together sexuality, religion, and race by representing a black Christ who has been falsely accused of having committed a crime against a white woman. Concerning the third video, Calleri's Uncovering, Tamburri argues that this is a work whose "ideologically charged semiotics" (336) opens the way for more empowering role for Italian American women in relation to race, sexuality, and artistic creation.
The volume closes with the text of a free-flowing chat, or "chiacchierata," between Annabella and Joseph Sciorra that occurred on April 27, 2001. The siblings freely intersperse discussions on The Sopranos and the casting practices of Italian American actors with private memories and comments on the food that they are preparing and savoring.
An insightful and well-organized volume, Screening Ethnicity is a must for everyone interested in plotting the complex panorama of visual Italian America. While the sophistication and in-depth analysis of many of the essays are a significant addition to the bibliography of Italian American Studies, the clarity and accessibility of the contributors' prose makes this volume a most suitable reading for courses devoted to an exploration of the complex entanglement of racial, social, and gender issues in the ethnic cinematic imaginary of American culture.
The University of Connecticut
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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