“Fantastic Stories”: Family and Cultural Memory in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Italianamerican’

Reviews / November 14, 2019

Directed by Martin Scorsese, 1974

After Martin Scorsese burst onto the scene with the one-two social realist punch of 1973’s Mean Streets and 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, he produced an ode to the milieu from which he sprang, a briefer-than-feature-length trip to his parents’ walk-up apartment in Little Italy for Sunday macaroni and gravy: 1974’s Italianamerican. The film is many things: an obvious love letter to Scorsese’s parents and to Italian culture, something of an anthropological expedition investigating his own roots, and ultimately an examination of how the combination of higher education, cultural assimilation, rejection of religion, and flight from urban ethnic enclaves to the suburbs changed the children of these first-generation European immigrants. Scorsese’s 1974 trip back to his folks’ house exposes the Italian-American experience in all its contradictions and quandaries: in gender relations, race relations, conceptions of social class, family life, and nostalgia and memory.

The relationship between (Luciano) Charles Scorsese and his wife Catherine (née Cappa) is obviously the center of the film. While Martin does appear and does prompt questions, Italianamerican is best when we’re watching the four-decades-married couple squabble and bicker and tease each other. One notable piece of Italian-American culture that emerges from the film is the complex web of gender roles and relationships that characterize the Italian family. Charles deals in a few stereotypical sexist behaviors that one might expect of someone of his generation, but it’s clear that Catherine (and by extension Italian-American wives and mothers) isn’t having any of it. One exchange on cooking (a topic that comes up again and again in the film) says it all; Charles explains with a smile that he doesn’t cook because “I’m not supposed to… it’s not my line,” while simultaneously claiming that, even so, men are the best chefs: “It’s been known that a man is a better cook than a woman any time.” Immediately, Catherine snaps back with a simple, “Then why aren’t you doing the cooking then!”

But ultimately both Charles and Catherine recognize the purely enormous amount of unpaid labor that Italian mothers had to do back in their day: cooking and cleaning for nine kids, all while taking on outside jobs that could be done at home, like sewing piecework: “Our poor mothers worked.” Modern conveniences such as washing machines have banished much of this drudgery, but both of the elder Scorseses seem humbled by the sacrifices their own mothers had to make. Charles, especially, is touching as he remembers his late mother being unwilling to suffer fools and quite capable of defending herself in any conflict: “As far as my mother goes, my mother was a strong woman… If she had to say something, she told you and that was it and you couldn’t answer her. My mother, she was a real whip.” After this statement, Charles’s hand goes to his mouth (as does Martin’s, I noticed, an uncanny example of familial mirroring), obviously choked up at the memory. Italian-American femininity, with its focus on being strong, being tough, being protective of one’s children, being able to hold one’s own in an argument, was born on the mean streets and tenements of major cities all over the Eastern seaboard in the early 20th century and most definitely would not have jibed with the contemporary WASP image of how a bourgeois woman, wife, and mother should act.

Mentioning the particular social environment in Lower Manhattan that housed and sheltered waves of Southern and Eastern European (and East Asian) immigrants in the early 20th century, it’s clear that even as ethnic groups formed their own enclaves, they were forced to deal with different groups as a matter of course in America’s “melting pot.” Charles recalls the way Little Italy and the Jewish enclaves on the Lower East Side would find themselves side-by-side in workplaces, public spaces (like the pushcarts and public markets on Delancey Street), and restaurants (Charles is insistent with Martin on making sure he notes that the home of “the original potato knish” is Schimmel’s.) “All together, Jewish and Italians, they all worked together,” Charles says, as he remembers lighting stoves and lamps for observant Jews on the Sabbath.

As Charles remembers the pushcarts, Martin cannily cuts in images of the Lower East Side, Little Italy, and Chinatown as they stood in the then-present of 1974: it’s still a multi-ethnic neighborhood with pushcarts and kids playing in the streets, demonstrating the continuity of four generations of immigrant communities in New York City. And it’s not just fellow white immigrants who the Scorseses identify as being unfairly treated by the power structures of the time. “People were afraid to walk through [Chinatown]; you used to hear so many stories about it, but it wasn’t true!” Catherine fairly screams. (Charles is admittedly a bit more ambivalent about Chinatown, but Catherine holds her own.) Throughout Italianamerican, Catherine demonstrates a very ingrained sense of racial solidarity, likely due to the awareness that Italians had been on the end of that exact kind of discrimination when they were “fresh off the boat.” Even when Charles makes a comment about how the preexisting Irish population of their neighborhood systematically mistreated the more recent immigrant arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, Catherine also makes sure to make a point of disagreeing with Charles’s intimation that the number of bars in the neighborhood indicated that the Irish of the time were all drunks.

With that in mind, it’s clear that there is some anxiety among the elder Scorseses’ generation around their immigrant identity and assimilation into the predominant American WASP culture. Early on in the film, Charles spends some time taking Catherine to task for “putting on”: elevating her tone from her customary lower Manhattan accent and mannerisms. After being hectored about this “code-switching,” Catherine responds in a broad New York Italian accent, shouting from off-screen: “I don’t know what you mean, Charlie!” “Talk the way you’re talkin’ to me now, that’s what I mean,” Charles responds with a knowing smile. This anxiety about assimilation and forgetting one’s origins in Italianamerican helps set the stage for so many of the subsequent conversations that the couple conduct about class, ethnicity, and making it in America. Throughout the film, the elder Scorseses discuss numerous gradual processes of cultural assimilation: for example, while Charles’s family didn’t believe in having a (American) Christmas tree when he was young in the 1920s, it’s clear from the Scorsese family photos from the 1950s that Martin grew up with American traditions like hanging stockings at Christmastime (from a radiator, not a fireplace). In a story Catherine tells about her father shaving his handlebar mustache after a week-long work assignment in New Jersey, which scared the kids because he looked so different upon his return to Manhattan, there floats the unspoken possibility that he was asked to shave the Old World facial hair for reasons of the job itself. (Speaking of facial hair, there are a couple of passive-aggressive generational pokes at Martin’s thick beard from both his mother and his father.) The most striking moment surrounding assimilation is the tale Catherine tells about her father’s citizenship interview, where Catherine’s sister had to act as interpreter; as the immigration agent’s reaction to the elder Cappa’s inability to speak fluent English is one of shame and disapproval: “Why that’s terrible!” Family lore insists that Catherine’s father used this opportunity to show off a little of the English he had picked up during his time in America, telling the immigrant agent, “Go and fuck yourself.”

There are also omnipresent reminders of class. The traditional tale of European immigration to America is the idea of fulfilling “the American dream,” usually by making one’s material fortune in the new land of opportunity. Charles notes the advice he received to not work for someone else, and instead work for yourself: “You’ll always have money in your pocket.” The hard times, the sacrifices, the traumatic journey to America itself (Catherine insists her mother was so scared of the prospect of a transatlantic sea journey that she had to be tricked onto the boat): these stories clearly loom large in the Scorseses’ family narrative, as with many European immigrants of the first generation. Details about the grimness of the tenement apartments and poverty abound in the elder Scorseses’ telling, but Catherine also luxuriates in the moments when her generation began to find work and make “real” money; the story of one of her brothers starting off as a messenger boy for quintessentially old-money WASP investment firm JP Morgan so that they can afford Christmas presents and “a proper tree” contrasts with Charles’s tale of his folks not wanting an American Christmas tree. Occasionally, it’s hinted that Charles’s family was a little bit poorer than Catherine’s; Catherine notes in a conversation about making wine that her family made theirs in the basement instead of the kitchen like Charles’s family did. Catherine makes repeated reference to her family’s wanting their house to look less like a tenement, citing the desire to “better yourself,” hinting that Charles’s allegation that she was “putting on” at the outset of the film might have been at least a little correct.

The perfect confluence of these issues around class consciousness and assimilation lie in the Scorseses’ tale of finally taking their long-promised honeymoon. Instead of their scuttled original plan to visit Niagara Falls when they were first married, they go (one imagines thanks to Martin’s success and largesse) on a two-week trip to the Italian peninsula where they visit family in Sicily and see Rome and Venice as American tourists forty years after their wedding. It’s notable that while Catherine obviously enjoyed all the trappings and privileges of the return to Italy, she also feels intense guilt about the poverty in the countryside that was still in evidence in the 1970s: “The land is so beautiful, but there’s no work over there!” She nearly weeps when she thinks about a young boy who wanted to be taken back to America with her, and makes a poignant Freudian slip in saying that she wished she could take him back on “the boat” before correcting to “the plane.” Catherine’s proximity to the immigrant experience of her mother allows for an empathetic realization: that her ancestors’ emigration was an escape from real endemic generational poverty, and that her position of privilege as a comfortable Italian-American on a two-week tour of Italy will not allow her to save the descendants of those who were left behind. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but it demonstrates that those memories of her ancestors left her with something tangible: a lasting, innate awareness of right and wrong.

It’s hard for me to remain completely unbiased about Italianamerican, of course, mostly because the Scorseses’ apartment, in its studied and cluttered Old World decor combined with mid-century Italian-American touches (plastic wrap covering the “nice couch” in the living room) reminds me vividly of my own grandparents’ apartment in East Boston in the 1970s and ’80s (as does Catherine’s insistence on vacuuming and cleaning up as soon as Martin is done shooting the film; my own grandmother’s obsessive cleanliness is recounted in family lore every time my father recalls being whacked with a broom to get him to clean up after himself). As examples of members of the generation that decided not to leave the old neighborhood for the suburbs like their late Silent and Baby Boomer kids did, the elder Scorseses are indicative of a bifurcation that was overwhelmingly common among ethnic whites in the Cold War era. In that move to the suburbs—under the larger rubric of “white flight“—came a concomitant distance from one’s neighbors, a certain financial and material security upon entering the American middle class, and a forgetting of one’s origins, both cultural and class, which led in many cases to an inevitable shift among many non-WASP whites to the political right. But those Italian-Americans of Catherine and Charles’s generation, still situated in the old neighborhood, didn’t completely forget that, once, we “all worked together.”

This awareness of the solidarity of the old neighborhood finds its most powerful expression in the way both the Scorseses tell their stories for Martin’s camera. In the final third of the film, with Sunday dinner being picked at over the dinner table, the Scorseses remember how important telling “fantastic stories” was in an era before the radio and the television, purely for purposes of entertainment. (It’s no surprise that the role Catherine eventually became famous for, as Joe Pesci’s character Tommy’s mother in 1990’s GoodFellas, involves her telling just such a humorous tale from the old country about a cuckolded husband, a story type with ancient origins in Italian literature and culture.) One of Catherine’s stories in Italianamerican, which touches upon the spooky and the supernatural matrix of the Old Country, oddly becomes an inadvertent parable for all the class anxieties expressed throughout the film. In this story, a mysterious visitor clad in silver appears, Communion-like, at the foot of Catherine’s mother’s bed back in Italy while she is nursing a young child—the next generation—and asks her to “hit me with something” to receive great wealth. Catherine’s mother, petrified by the visitation, hesitates, clutching her child (destined to be an American) to her breast. Years later, a trove of silver coins is found in the home after they’d left; family members, remembering the story, blame her for not lashing out at the mysterious alien stranger and becoming rich.

In a way, though, that sort of a devil’s bargain is real, and is expressed in the way the Italians, the Poles, the Greeks, and many other non-WASPs “became white” in the second half of the 20th century. And oral storytelling like this—from generation to generation—helps to convey important cultural messages that might otherwise be forgotten in the stultifying white conformity of the red-lined, middle-class suburbs. The stories our elders choose to tell and hand down are vitally important to not forgetting our origins as well as remembering and preserving moral lessons—lessons of familial loyalty, of brave, hard-working matriarchs, even lessons of class and cross-ethnic solidarity (even if neither of the Scorseses speak in such blatantly political terms) purchased at great cost. If every Italian-American MAGA-swallowing stronzo in 2019 who talks about their ancestors immigrating “the right way” could really listen to what the elder Scorseses were saying in Italianamerican about solidarity—solidarity with laborers, with recent immigrants, with working mothers, with the ethnic “Others” in the neighborhood, a sense of community hard won, prompted by real harassment and oppression of their own ancestors at the hands of cops and immigration officials—they might begin to understand why they’re wrong, and why they’ve always been wrong, to accept the poisoned pill of American kyriarchical “whiteness.” Martin Scorsese knew, even as a hungry 31-year-old filmmaker—and he remembers today, 45 years after Italianamerican was released—that the stories we choose to tell and to preserve matter, that the voices we choose to amplify with our privilege matter, and that even in a family lark like Italianamerican, that belief shines through, like a trove of silver treasure.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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4 thoughts on ““Fantastic Stories”: Family and Cultural Memory in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Italianamerican’

  1. Really a great meditation on a film that I had not seen or thought about since my “History of Film, Film in History” undergrad class. I think it may be one of your best pieces.

  2. Have not seen it, but this was a wonderful essay/description and made me think of this book/memoir: Mount Allegro
    Jerre Magione–centered on growing up in Italian-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh/Penn/which is no longer/got razed — how some families became more Americanized than others.

  3. Pingback: The Grid of Destiny: David Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot Deck, 1970

  4. Pingback: A Year in the Iso-Cubes: The Mutants Recap 2020

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