P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Cinema

Looking for male Italian adulthood, old style

Francesco Caviglia

The Italian writer and film critic Marco Lodoli has compared the vitality of American cinema with the allegedly unresponsive Italian version:

I have a confused memory of a story from Ancient Rome: the barbarians, young and victorious, having just arrived at the caput mundi, run to the Senate where senators are gathered and sit, mute and impassive, full of dignity. The invaders mistake those immobile beings for statues of marble, until a Hun decides to pull one of the old men’s beards, the latter slaps him in the face and sets off the whole city’s reaction. Now, I believe that American youngsters pull our beards every month, they blow all their vital lack of prejudice on our wrinkled faces, but we don’t see many reactions. Our old senators are like polished and often bulky marble blocks, while our young people waddle like lazy indifferent pigeons around those monuments, or else make fools of themselves by pathetically trying to mimic the winning eagles. Unnoticed, we feel also envious toward America and its tireless faith in the scandal of regeneration.[1]

Elsewhere, Lodoli underscores the frequent lack of adulthood in contemporary Italian cinema:

If I remember authors from the ’50s, I see them as eternal adults, men and women wrestling with the world, looking history in the face with a certain untamed boldness, persuaded that that they could change the course of events with their work. I see them stern, hardened by war, ready to discuss and to pound on the table. Even the most desperate had to come to terms with adulthood, to obey a graying God that called for adult answers. My generation, instead, has usually stopped at adolescence. There is melancholy and dreaminess, a feeling for the infinite and an agonizing attitude of impotence. There is unfulfilled love and there are shadows fraught with hopes that are too grand to descend to the howling arena of real life existence.[2]

Marco Lodoli not only worships old European and Italian cinema, he also keeps a very attentive eye on more recent productions: his statements should also be taken as the complaint of an often frustrated lover, ready to forget any past disappointment for even a brief moment of happiness. However, I think the comparison he draws does hit the target. In this paper, I will elaborate briefly on the paradox that Italian-American directors Scorsese and Coppola and actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino paint, in my opinion, the most vivid image of a certain kind of old-time Italian.

Cultural change and its representation
A few months before his death in 1975, intellectual and film director Pierpaolo Pasolini wrote some "Notes for a film script about a policeman" as a comment on a true story: a young policeman had committed suicide after being tricked by a prisoner who escaped on the pretext of a brief private encounter with his girlfriend during a jail transfer. According to Pasolini, the tragedy had its origin in the "anthropological shift" that he saw in Italy between the mid ’60s and the mid ’70s: an old morality with its codes of honour (e.g. obedience or keeping one’s word) was being replaced by modern consumerism (e.g. the ‘right’ to sex) and the policeman – whom Pasolini imagined to be from a poor, unschooled peasant background – got caught half-way between the two worlds. Pasolini was well aware of the shortcomings of old-fashioned morality, as witnessed by his long-time commitment to enlightening Italian readers and viewers, but he felt the old morality and its contrast with the new should have been paid a tribute – thus adopting Gramsci’s idea that popular art "is in the best position to represent contradictions in the historical development of existing customs."[3]

In my view, Italian cinema lived up to the task of discussing cultural change until the ’60s. For example, Burt Lancaster played a memorable role as Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and, in an entirely different social setting, the same Visconti showed the clash of old and ‘modern’ life-styles brought about by immigration in Rocco and His Brothers (1965). Both films are about people who face a new world to which their virtues and values are increasingly unadapted, which gives a conflict situation of high dramatic potential. In the same period, the commedia all’italiana was parodying characters who represented old values, especially in the realm of sexual morality – e.g. the fathers and mothers in Pietro Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style (1961) or Seduced and Abandoned (1964). This happened at a time when the model ridiculed on film was still strong in real life.

But in the ’70s Pasolini didn't have the time to make a film about the unfortunate policeman[4], and in the following years Italian cinematography would increasingly develop the kind of situation that Marco Lodoli describes. This is not to say that no Italian film-maker has tried to portray the old-fashioned mentality. My point, elaborating on Lodoli, is that after the ’60s, Italian films failed to create a convincing model of the old world and its values, with powerful characters and stories that might have become part of a shared memory and identity. For example, most characters in My Father, My Master (1977) and The Tree with the Wooden Clogs (1978) are definitely set in older times and ring true, but both films have always been too distant in space and time for most viewers: both of them were hard to connect with past experience in true life or in a fictional tradition. Also Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1978) – the film that made its director into one of the "monuments" Lodoli was referring to – today looks rather schematic: again, just as in The Leopard, Burt Lancaster puts his figure and charisma into the role of an old patriarch, but the character in the story basically represents a world that deserves to vanish, and will not be missed.

If an Italian moviegoer is looking for more recent pictures of what it means to be an old-fashioned Italian, I think the choice is to turn to the other side of Atlantic and see Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990), Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (especially the first two episodes, 1972 and 1974), and more recently, Al Pacino’s performance as small-time hood Lefty Ruggiero in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1996).

In the next section I will exemplify some characteristics that I regard as typical of this "old-time culture," while in the conclusion, I will propose a hypothesis as to why Italian-American film-makers, rather than Italians, paid a not-too-nostalgic tribute to tradition.

Some traits of old-fashioned Italians

The traits examined here concern the relationship of the characters with themselves, their families and the outside world.

The ability to make sacrifices was a valued asset in the morality of earlier times. Raging Bull (1980) brings self-denial to paroxysm. De Niro/La Motta refrains from sex, and asks his brother to hit him in order to learn how to endure grief. De Niro even decides to share the attitude of the character he plays by first submitting himself to lengthy training in order to act credibly in the ring, and then to a special diet in order to gain weight for the role of the retired boxer. Self-denial may be portrayed as a negative model that a father tries to impose on a son, as in My Father, My Master (1977) and Dead Poets Society (1986), or lend itself to low-key representation as modest/feminine virtue, as with Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (1946), or else can be brought to greater heights in connection with an American (and artistic) dream of success, as in The Red Shoes (1948). The latter is the choice of Scorsese, who had been deeply impressed by the Powell & Pressburger masterpiece[5], and with Raging Bull gives us a character with a vision that is the American dream plus more archaic Catholic overtones, with sins that have to be atoned for somewhere, and suffering as a way to redemption. Raging Bull shows how far – both in success and in misery – self-denial can lead.

Moral and amoral familism
In the same film, the family is the only positive pole in Jack La Motta’s life, with Joe Pesci playing a great role as the faithful brother. I would like to elaborate briefly on this point. "Amoral familism" is an expression first invented to explain the economic underdevelopment in a Southern Italian village as a consequence of the inability of its inhabitants to act together for the common good; this once hotly debated explanation has since become a fairly common way of looking at the role of family for Italians[6]. Coppola in The Godfather trilogy has been most effective and influential in putting epic and tragic dimensions into this model and then exposing the hypocrisy of the American scorn for the model itself, as exemplified by this exchange between the young boss and his WASP wife, complaining about the lifestyle of the "family":

Michael Corleone: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.

Kay Adams: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don't have men killed!

Michael Corleone: Oh. Who's being naive, Kay?

On the other hand Scorsese, who, ever since he was a student of film, wanted to do away with filmic stereotypes of Italian Americans[7], chooses a different, lower key – truer, in my view – and represents family and family bonds as the most decent asset in a difficult world. For Scorsese, "family" is not at all a metaphor, while Michael Corleone could only see his WASP consigliori played by Robert Duvall as his "true" brother. Only the family represents support and safety for Jack La Motta, who goes to pieces after breaking the family ties; in Scorsese’s other Italian-American films, the family scenes are the ones that make the characters into fellow human beings, even when they are nasty, borderline personalities like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. In Scorsese’s films set in Little Italy, there is nothing unusual or wrong in the family itself – at least not worse than in other ethnic groups: the problem lies in relations to the external world.

Violent jealousy
Jealousy is a great subject for narration and a nasty reality, remaining to this day a relatively frequent cause of assault on women[8]. A man's complete control over the "virtue" of his wife and daughters was, and in some societies still is, a requirement for being a respected member of a community. For Italians this condition hopefully changed around the time of the "anthropologic shift," probably with the contribution of commedia all’italiana, that constantly depicted violent jealousy as a synonym of backwardness. Today it still happens that men assault or kill their ex-wives and girlfriends, but the social stigma on violent jealousy is so firmly established that such occurrences are seen by the press – and sometimes by juries – more as a psychiatric than as a cultural problem[9]. Accordingly, in Italian cinema in the last 30 years jealous husbands do suffer, but don’t play Othello[10]. Italian- America film-makers feel more free to connect jealousy with characters enjoying heroic status. Michael Corleone/Al Pacino acts in the cruelest way to avoid being abandoned by his woman, an event that would destroy his credibility to himself and others. Scorsese himself acted a monologue – which now feels a bit stereotypical – as a betrayed man waiting to kill his wife in Taxi Driver (1976) and later once again brought the theme to its dramatic peak in Raging Bull, where paranoid jealousy is shown in all its destructive power, but associated with a character that has his grandness.

A hierarchical and hostile outside world
As a last archaic trait that Italian-American films depict more vividly than Italian films, I would mention the obsession with hierarchy and power relations, or ‘honour’.

Whether among small-time hoods in Donnie Brasco or high-ranking figures in The Godfather, the characters are always concerned with their status, with the need to show and be shown respect accordingly, and with the imperative of never losing face. This trait has quite deep cultural roots and it is interesting to read in the memoirs of Italian-American undercover agent Joe Pistone – on which Donnie Brasco is based – how motivations of work and personal pride sometime overlap in explaining his concern about his own rank among mobsters, as when he still resents offences he had to tolerate in the line of duty[11].

As with violent jealousy, obsessive concern for one’s status has not disappeared from the real world at all, but hierarchy has become less fashionable and less overt in large parts of contemporary Western culture. However, it is interesting to note that a prevalence of "vertical relationships" among citizens is today still considered a factor hampering the growth of civil society and social capital in Italy.[12]

Conclusion: identity as shared memory, plus a project

Why have Italian-American filmmakers been more successful than Italian ones in building a shared narrative about some traits of old-time culture? I will propose an explanation encompassing both historical and artistic reasons.

Italian-Americans have both a shared memory of immigration and a shared project of earning a portion of the American dream for their community and for themselves; this condition has prompted a few Italian-American directors to fulfill their own American dream by developing a successful foundation myth about the place of their community of origin in American history. Then, as it happened earlier with Westerns, films taking place in Little Italy have developed into a genre, which gives the filmmaker and the viewer alike a framework for free variations on a theme. Not least, the Mafia in the USA has been actively fought and defeated in the courts and increasingly perceived as a defeated cultural model.

Identity in Italy is a trickier issue[13]. A shared project is sorely missed, after the severe blows that collective hopes suffered in the ’70s and ’80s, and things look even worse in the perspective of memory. Most periods and events in the history of Italy in the 20th century, from the two world wars to the economic boom, are still objects of divided memory and any recollection is subject to harsh debate, especially when it touches open wounds. This condition usually requires that any Italian film which doesn't stick to the present, as does the commedia all’italiana, explicitly take a position, and explain too much to the viewer. I cannot think of an historical time or ambience that can produce in the viewers the "participative distance" that Westerns or Little Italy prompt for an American audience. In other words, bad guys or old-time figures are not perceived in Italy as remote or defeated, and are therefore not suited to making into "heroic" characters.

I think that Italians' difficulty in establishing a shared identity is the main reason why I cannot remember any recent Italian films which effectively represent a cultural shift, as portrayed for example in John Ford’s late Westerns, The Searchers (1956) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). To depict cultural change, filmmakers and viewers have to acknowledge the views of "other" Italians. Until now, I know only of a comedy that has explicitly embraced this attitude.[14]

To make an Italian dramatic movie with a hero who belongs to the culture of an earlier time, I expect it would be necessary to pick up one of the few shared areas of collective memory, such as sports. But in that case, the film would have to compete with Raging Bull. No easy feat.

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1 Marco Lodoli, Fuori dal cinema [outside the cinema] (Torino: Einaudi, 1999), pp. 210-111, commenting The opposite of sex (1998) by Don Ross and the performance by actress Christina Ricci.

2 Ibidem, p.85, commenting L’estate di Davide [Davide’s summer] (1998), by Carlo Mazzacurati.

3 Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni dal carcere [The prison’s notebook], Q.21, § 6.

4 The story eventually became a TV-film in the ‘80s, but I have not been able to find the title.

5 S. David Ehrenstein, The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1992), p. 34.

6 "Amoral familism" was first proposed in Edward Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (New York: The Free Press, 1958). A reappraisal of this concept and its connection with "clientelism" in today’s Italy in Paul Ginsborg, L’Italia del tempo presente (1980-1996) (Torino: Einaudi, 1998), pp. 132-179 (significantly, in a chapter with the title "legacies of the past"); an updated English edition is in press as Italy and Its Discontent (1980-2000) (London: Penguin, 2001).

7 Scorsese scorns at what he calls "the ‘Mama mia!’ school of Italian acting," in Ehrenstein, cit., p. 41.

8 Martin Daly & Margo Wilson, Homicide (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988).

9 A law explicitly prescribing lighter sentence for people killing to defend their honour, was abolished in Italy in the ’70s; this rule is the focus of the plot in Divorce – Italian style (1962). Divorce was first introduced in Italy in the ’70s. Some reflections on "honour" in today’s Italy in Francesco Caviglia (ed.), "Valori degli italiani: un percorso intorno alla famiglia." (Pré)publications 177-178 (September 2000), also on the Internet at http://www.hum.au.dk/romansk/tidsskrift/pages/oversigt_177.html.

10 In Ecce Bombo (1976) and Per amore, solo per amore [For love, only for love] (1993) – the latter about the story of Joseph and Mary – the supposedly betrayed husbands merely cry. In Senza pelle [No skin] (1994), where a mentally disturbed young man falls in love and starts following a married woman, the husband eventually turns out to be quite understanding.

11 Joseph D. Pistone, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia (London: Sidwick & Jackson, 1988), for example p. 119. Obviously, personal pride and ambition are functional assets for an agent who has to endure six years under cover in the Mafia.

12 Ginsborg, cit., pp. 60-68, points out that in comparison with other Western countries, Italy has a rather well-defined social hierarchy combined with low social mobility.

13 A review of the debate on Italian identity can be found in Giovanni Gozzini, "L’identità introvable." Passato e presente XVII, n. 47 (May-August 1999), pp. 15-30.

14 Feria d’agosto [August Vacations] (1996), by Paolo Virzì.

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