Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Godfather, Italian Stereotyping & Mario Cuomo

Il Duomo di Firenze
True or exaggerated? Former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo finally watched "The Godfather", according to The New York Times, after having refused for four decades to see any of the movies or to even read Mario Puzo’s book.

What is going on here? For all those years, Cuomo has maintained that "Italians (and blacks) were typically singled out for abuse in American movies and that those stereotypes had spilled over into politics." When Cuomo was first running for office, he recalled, “only 16 percent said they knew me. “And 14 percent said they wouldn’t vote for me because of my relationship to bad criminals,” he said.

"In 1985, when Paul Castellano, the mob boss, was executed in front of Sparks Steak House in Manhattan, Mr. Cuomo urged reporters to refrain from invoking the word Mafia in reference to the hit. “Every time you say it, you suggest to people that organized crime is Italian,” he said. “It’s an ugly stereotype.”

Is Cuomo exaggerating? Let's look at some facts and figures from a study about Italian Culture on Film between 1928-2001, conducted by the Italic Institute of America:

Total Italian related films since the sound era (i.e. 1928): 1,220 of which 859 (i.e. 70%!) portray Italians in a negative light. 40% of the characters in those films are "mob characters", 30% are "boors, buffoons and bigots" and only the remaining 30% of characters are "positive or complex."

Before "The Godfather" came out in 1972, 207 mob movies were made between 1928-1972; from 1972-2001, 281 movies featuring Italians as criminals were produced, bringing the average to 10 mob movies a year. Finally, to put these media statistics in a broader context, according to the 2010 US census, there are 17 million Italian American in the U.S. and according to 1999 FBI statistics there were 1,150 Italian American criminals (i.e. just 0.0068%.) One of the Italic Institute of America's  conclusions is then: "The criteria for selecting films is based on image, not aesthetics. Thus, although "The Godfather" is indeed a great film, it falls under the category of "negative" for portraying crime as an "integral" part of Italian culture."

To hit the point of home of these statistics, just consider some of the recent popular movies and TV shows portraying Italian Americans: "Jersey Shore", "The Sopranos", "Growing Up Gotti”, “Mob Wives", "The Real Housewives of New Jersey", "Mama's Boys of the Bronx", "Mean Streets", "A Bronx Tale", 'Goodfellas”, "Mickey Blue Eyes",  “Casino”, "Once Upon a Time in America", "The Untouchables", the original "Scarface", “Donnie Brasco" and the list goes on.

To me Italy's culture and history is hardly represented in U.S. media: Italy was the cradle of Western civilization where during the Renaissance the foundations were laid for art, architecture, science and banking. A culture that has brought forth explorers such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus; political leaders such as Cosimo de Medici and Giuseppe Garibaldi; composers such as Gioachino Rossini and Guiseppe Verdi, painters such as Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo; scientists such as Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci; architects such as Filippo Brunelleschi, of "Florence cathedral" fame, and Michelozzo; actors and filmmakers such as  Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini; writers and philosophers such as Dante Alighieri, Thomas Aquinas and Umberto Eco. In addition to this rich history of art, science and culture, modern Italy has an unparallelled tradition in fashion (Gucci, Prada, Armani, and Ferragamo), in architectural and industrial design, and in great food and cuisine. Modern day Italy is the tenth largest economy in the world with a high quality automobile sector (Fiat - owner of Chrysler -, Maserati and Ferrari), a leading luxury goods sector, and it's the world's largest wine producer.

You don't have to be a historian or cultural expert on Italy, but Cuomo Sr. did not exaggerate: Hollywood has not only stereotyped Italian Americans, but disregarded hundreds of years of culture, history and reality. Is that what their audiences deserve, let alone Italian Americans? If this would be a radio or TV show, I would cry out "What is wrong with you people?" As an antidote to the narrow-minded portrayal of Italian "culture" by Hollywood, I suggest that you sit back and relax, while listening to The Four Seasons (- Spring - ) by an Italian composer who you wouldn't find in the mean streets of the Bronx or in the homes of the housewives of New Jersy, the baroque composer and violinist  Antonio Vivaldi.

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