Bill Dal Cerro (President of the Italic Institute of America)

Hollywood e gli italoamericani: storia di una clamorosa e dannosa ingiustizia

Jun 08, 2015 4415 ITA ENG

With the exception of Louis Zamperini in 2014 "Unbroken", it has been almost impossible to find Italian American positive characters in the Hollywood storytelling of last decades. While Italian Americans have proved their talent and their hardworking attitude with an exceptional positive contribution to American society, economy, culture in any possible field, fiction and movies seem to tell again and again and again the same old negative stereotype.

In 2014 a very interesting study about this topic has been promoted by the Italic Institute of America, who also updated the study in 2015. We have today with us the President of IIA, Bill Dal Cerro. We thank Bill for the possibility to talk about this

Bill, you are the President of the Italic Institute of America. Please tell us something about it

The Italic Institute of America (IIA) was founded in Floral Park, New York in 1987. It was founded to preserve and promote the legacy of Italic culture in the U.S. and around the world, particularly its classical legacy (that is, its Roman-Etruscan roots and its impact on Western Civilization, as well as the discoveries of Il Rinascimento). Its original founders, John Mancini, Stefano Gristina, and businessman Carl Pescosolido, felt that most existing Italian American organizations were sorely lacking in two things: an appreciation of anything deeper than the immigrant perspective, and a total lack of interest in inspiring young Italian Americans to be proud of that heritage. To educate adults, the Institute publishes The Italic Way, one of the most thoughtful and provocative magazines in the country. There is no food, no fashion, and no travelogues. Its aim is to provoke and uplift our community's intellectual appreciation of "italianità" beyond immigrant stories and food recipes. The same is true for the IIA's initiative for children, AURORA, a language and culture program for kids aged 9-12 (middle school).

In 2015 you updated your very interesting years-long study of Hollywood's treatment of the Italian mobster, "Film Study: A Century of Little Progress" (1914 - 2014). What is this study, and when and why you had the idea of working of something like this?

As a trained journalist and film critic as well as educator, I found it imperative that the Italian American community get serious about analyzing the reality of our history in America. Far too many Italian Americans complacently accept the "reality" of what they see on American movie screens as "Italian culture," even though, in real life, most Italian Americans will admit that a majority of these negative images are false. They feel that most non-Italians share this false sense of security. They don't realize the power of images to shape peoples' perceptions. Consequently, as the study reveals, such complacency has allowed Hollywood to distort our true history in America. Film is the ONLY industry in American society where Italian Americans have very little true power. Yes, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese get movies made ... but what kind of movies? Again, as the study reveals, even so-called artists like Coppola and Scorsese are "limited" in their scope when it comes to painting different images of Italian Americans. Prejudice still exists.

Which are the most important results of the study?

To me, the most important result is that nine out of ten Italian gangster images in American movies (86.9%) are completely false; they have no basis in reality. They are simply caricatures. For every film about say, Al Capone, there are eight other films with a gangster named "Vito" or "Tony" who isn't real. And yet, people accept them as "true!"

I found particularly interesting the part where you refer about the relationship between the total number of Italian Americans (17 millions according to 201 Census) and the one of Italian criminals (1.150, as to say 0,0068% of the community) ...

As did I. This proves how distorted things are between "real" life and Hollywood's "reel" life. And the gangster obsession isn't just limited to movies; you also see it in TV shows, newspaper articles, novels, and—if you can believe it—cartoons aimed at children.

Sadly, even il bel paese has internalized this negativity. I've been a fan of Italian cinema since I was a child, and I've noticed that Italy itself is suddenly producing a high number of films about gangsters: the Camorra, N'drangheta, etc. Either Italy is now a cesspool of a nation dominated by gangsters (which I don't believe) or Italian filmmakers are imitating their cugini across the Atlantic, eager to exploit this genre to gullible Americans (which I do believe). Both Italians and Italian Americans don't understand the power of imagery.

Is there something in the study that is not well known among the Italian American community, but still you think it's important to be told?

Before "The Godfather" in 1972, the number of gangster films was quite low, 98. There was a more balanced approach to our community. With the success of that film, however, a "Berlin Wall" of stereotyping was erected, generating other 430 movies of this kind. It has been non-stop negativity for 43 years.

We've enjoyed very much the 2014 movie "Unbroken", the story of the great Louis Zamperini, which you described as "one of the few Hollywood film to feature an Italian surnamed male character in a heroic, complex, or dignified role". We unfortunately know the too long list of movies that depicted the Italian Americans in a bad way, so let's think positive: in your opinion, which are the top 5 Hollywood movies that have been positively describing an Italian American character?

Opinions on films are very subjective. There is also context—for example, early movies versus modern movies. Many good ones came out in the 1950s: "Marty" and "The Rose Tattoo," for example (both 1955), or "Full of Life" (1956). Certainly, "Unbroken" deserves to be on that list. And I would add a documentary like "Berkeley in the 1960s," which shows a real-life Italian American: Mario Savio, who led the Free Speech student movement of the era. Incredibly, Savio, a Sicilian American, grew up with a stutter but became one of the greatest public speakers of his generation. The more that Hollywood focuses on real Italian Americans like Zamperini and Savio, the less room they have to falsify us as a community.

We all know about the Godfather effect. Let's play what if: what if Mario Puzo had never written the book, and then Francis Ford Coppola had never done the movie ... would we still be here talking about a pretty evident and hurtful Hollywood behavior against the Italian Americans?

Puzo and Coppola's collaboration was a game-changer. It made anti-Italian stereotypes romantic and mythological. Again, look at the statistics: 81% of gangster movies came after the success of that film. There still might be that perception out there that Italians are 'better' gangsters than gangsters from other ethnic groups, thanks to Al Capone's notoriety, but "The Godfather" turned journalists, academicians, and film critics against us. Those groups of people - college educated and pro "diversity" - turn a largely deaf ear to Italian stereotypes. They, too, accept them as "real," and dismiss our concerns with derision.

Do you think that the Italian Americans should have fought more against the stereotyping against them? And, what should they do now, when sometimes it seems that America is politically correct towards everybody but them?

Ironically, promoting positive images and correcting distortions WAS an early focus of the Italian American intelligentsia. But somehow, such efforts became overshadowed by hugely successful Italian American business leaders who often cared more about money and prestige and becoming "American." These leaders began a tradition of spending money on everything except Italian culture. Instead, they raise money or spend money on non-ethnic causes such as hospitals, charitable groups, generic college scholarships, etc. Their purpose is to show non-Italians that we're really "good" Americans, not Mafiosi.

What they don't realize is that non-Italians still make jokes about how these charitable organizations are run by "gangsters." Such gestures of good will mean nothing.

Until the issue of media images is fully addressed - and we believe our film study is a step in the right direction - Americans who have a vowel at the end of their names will continued to be looked down upon as socially inferior.

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