Hollywood’s Italian American Filmmakers: Capra, Scorsese, Savoca, Coppola and Tarantino

  • Jonathan J. Cavallero
  • University of Illinois Press
  • 212 pp

Looking at a cinematic range that goes beyond the stereotypes to show distinctive ethnic contributions.

Reviewed by James Welsh

Readers who like to stereotype Italian-Americans as Sicilian thugs, “made” guys tied to the Mafia or “wise guys,” as Martin Scorsese has presented them, might think this is a book for them. And it is, but not in those categorical terms. What makes Jonathan Cavallero’s book worthwhile is the presence of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese among the quintet of Italian-American filmmakers he explores. They are, after all, two of the most interesting and gifted film directors of our time, each demonstrating distinctive ethnic contributions, though not in exactly the same ways.

Coppola, the filmmaker turned vintner, has traded mightily on his ethnicity, as witnessed by his latest film, “Tetro,” about a tormented, moody, gifted Italian, seemingly misplaced in the wrong hemisphere. Both Coppola and Scorsese have traded heavily in family and “Family” values; both have ventured into the Underworld, but neither has focused entirely on criminal ethnic behavior. Both have given evidence of genius, setting quality standards for post-Studio Hollywood.

Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films gave a particularized and iconic view of Italian-American identity that has as much to do with family values as with Mafia “Family” codes of honor, even though “Italian-American” involves more than Sicilian-American-shady connotations. Italian culture at large should not be narrowly defined by Sicilian Mafia codes of behavior. Cavallero describes Coppola’s nostalgia as “seductive” in its view of “American culture as the corrupter of a pristine and idyllic Italian culture.” But the “Godfather” films “are also critical of the Corleones, never allowing viewers to forget that this seemingly ideal Italian-American family is sustained by bloodshed, extortion and murder.”

“The Godfather, Part III” (1990) serves as a corrective, Cavallero suggests, and “plays more like a Scorsese film, where ethnic dysfunction is dramatized through a series of images, scenes and intratextual references that comment upon and starkly undermine the comforting myths of the previous two installments.” This insight places “Godfather III” in a larger context that partly explains why it was not as popular as the original and its sequel. If the function of a good book is to lead the reader to new perceptions, then Cavallero scores here.

Not all of Scorsese’s films are tied to Italian-American culture, but most of the best are, with the exception of “The Age of Innocence” (1993). “Raging Bull,” his 1980 biopic of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, has been judged the best American film of the 1980s and one of the best ever made. Gritty and “realistic” beyond the grasp of Coppola, Scorsese has marked out his territory.

Drawing upon Scorsese’s four-hour personal documentary tracing the history of Italian films and their influence on his work, “Mio viaggo in Italia” (1999), Cavallero points out, for example, that Scorsese’s treatment of Jake LaMotta was influenced by Federico Fellini’s presentation of strongman Zampanó in the classic Italian film “La Strada” (1954), and that “the boys” of “Mean Streets” (1973) were “were heavily influenced by Fellini’s “I vitelloni” (1953), although the title of that film suggests not simply “boys” but “slackers” or “idlers.”

Such performances, Cavallero contends, are “commonly grouped under the cultural norm of la bella figura,” which, he goes on to say, “designates proper or improper public behavior and this activates all those protocols that pertain to maintaining and augmenting ‘face.’ ” In one of the first books to treat Scorsese, Robert Kolker characterized Scorsese’s work as a “cinema of loneliness.” Cavallero would emend that for the Italian-American films to a “cinema of group solidarity.”

Coppola and Scorsese are special, parallel talents. But do Frank Capra, Quentin Tarantino and Nancy Savoca belong in the same study with them? We know that Capra was Italian because of the unforgettable and astonishing opening of Joseph McBride’s biography, Frank Capra:  The Catastrophe of Success (1992). Capra lived out his career being recognized as the Benevolent Director who gave us “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946, and now revived every Christmas), a talented Hollywood candy maker who sweetened the national consciousness and gave us reason to feel good about ourselves. Although Coppola might sometimes creep toward the nostalgic and the sentimental, he would never be a Capra, even though his role and importance in the “New” Hollywood might rival that of Capra’s under the old Hollywood Studio system. Problem is, however, that many readers might have to be reminded that Capra was Italian-Sicilian. With Scorsese and Coppola that ethnicity is much closer to the surface.

Likewise, Tarantino, a primo movie buff from Tennessee, part Cherokee-Irish and, Cavallero reminds us, part Italian: aside from his name, would many viewers think of Tarantino primarily as an Italian filmmaker? Cavallero admits that Tarantino himself has dismissed his Italian ethnicity (or half-ethnicity). One might include him to please the trendy, the postmodern and the bloodthirsty; but is Tarantino really a better candidate for inclusion in a book on Italian-American filmmakers than Brian DePalma?  In the Introduction, Cavallero explains his rationale for choosing Tarantino over other possible candidates (such as Brian DePalma, Michael Cimino, Gregory LaCava, Ida Lupino and Vincente Minnelli), but not perhaps convincingly. De Palma, he claims,  “has worked at the same historical moment as Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, but his approach to Italian ethnicity might be more closely aligned with Capra.” To be sure, but then, again, it might not be.

At least Tarantino is well known to viewers, unlike Cavallero’s other choice, Nancy Savoca, born in the Bronx in 1960, and partly Italian. Yes, her film “True Love” (1989) examined an Italian-American courtship and wedding, but Savoca’s mother was Spanish and her father Sicilian by way of Argentina. To label her Italian seems a far stretch. One suspects an academic gender-balancing act. If so, why not Sofia Coppola instead?  Because “Godfather” Francis already owns a chapter in this book?  Sofia is roped into the conclusion, only to be criticized for racial stereotyping in “Lost in Translation” (2005).  Cavallero thinks she is more interested in class than ethnicity. But has the apple fallen so far from the tree? Has the third-generation Italian-American daughter, who herself became a filmmaker after acting in her father’s films, become so different, really, from her second-generation Italian-American father?

Cavallero, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Arkansas, is certainly an informed movie buff who comes out of academia, where he has learned jargon and theory; even so, his book is generally readable and capable of reaching a general audience beyond that academic cloister for whom this book, published by a university press, seems to have been written. Clearly, however, the topic has not been exhausted.

James Welsh is professor emeritus at Salisbury University in Maryland and co-founding editor of Literature/Film Quarterly. He is also the co-author of The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia (Scarecrow Press, 2010).

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