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Anthony Julian Tamburri, Re-Viewing Italian Americana. Generalities and Specificities on Cinema

New York, Bordighera Press, 2011, pp. 161, $15

Few scholars have contributed as much to the field of Ital-ian-American Studies as Anthony Julian Tamburri. In his many books and essays, Tamburri has worked to establish Italian Americana as a valued topic of academic inquiry, and the scholars who contribute to the field today owe a debt of grati-tude to him and his work. In his latest book, Re-Viewing Italian Americana, Tamburri once again challenges those interested in Italian Americans (not just scholars but also activists, students, and other related parties) to create a more inclusive and comprehensive picture of the myriad ways Italian-American ethnicity is represented cinematically and televisually, how it is used rhetorically, and how it is understood culturally. This is a significant book, because it provides new perspectives on often debated titles like The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) while also bringing relatively unknown artists and rarely discussed media products to the attention of a larger audience. Indeed, Tamburri assumes the dual role of scholar-activist here. He not only analyzes media texts but also works to create an audience for Italian-American artists who have flown more or less under the radar.
Tamburri organizes his book into seven chapters – a pref-ace that considers the state of Italian-American media studies; an introduction that provides an extensive overview of scholarly works concerned with Italian-American filmed media; a chapter that investigates the short film The House I Live In (Mervyn LeRoy, 1945) starring Frank Sinatra; an investigation of the costume design of The Godfather; a consideration of Italian filmmaker Emanuele Crialese’s Nuovomondo (2006); an exploration of three Italian-American-themed short films that were not considered in Tamburri’s previous book on the topic [Italian/American Short Films and Music Videos. A Semiotic Reading West Lafayette (IN), Purdue University Press, 2002]; and a brief conclusion that, like the introduction, provides ideas for future scholarly inquiry on Italian-American representations. Tamburri’s almost 50-page introduction exhibits his superior knowledge of the field. Everyone from novices to seasoned scholars will benefit from this chapter, which provides concise, well-written, and understandable synopses of the classic works in the field as well as more obscure, out-of-print titles that the author has managed to track down. Tamburri also exhibits a remarkable knowledge of Italian language sources, which is quite helpful for readers who are not fluent in Italian.
Almost as impressive as Tamburri’s familiarity with the ex-istent research is his skill at finding meaning in visual signs. Indeed, this has been a hallmark of the author’s career, and the tradition continues here. In «Michael Corleone’s Tie,» Tamburri investigates the ways that an easily neglected aspect of The Godfather’s mise-en-scene adds depth and meaning to this classical text. By demonstrating the degree to which Michael’s (Al Pacino) costume conforms to that of a funeral director, Tamburri allows readers to not only gain a greater appreciation for this movie but also for Francis Ford Coppola’s artistry. Similarly, in one of the first published essays on Crialese’s Nuovomondo, Tamburri reveals the conflict and struggle between the film’s visual signs and the written word. This tension serves as an apt metaphor for the conflict between Old World (which privileges the visual, the seeable) and New World (which tends to rely on language and the written word) ways of thinking. But, Tamburri points out that Crialese’s method of storytelling not only speaks to the film’s thematic interests but also reveals the director’s sympathies. As the author writes, «Crialese tells his story through pictures, not with words» (p. 96).
Tamburri’s consideration of Nuovomondo, a familiar (at least for Italian Americanists) but rarely analyzed text, com-plements his analysis of a handful of infrequently-seen short films like The House I Live In, Diane Federico’s Che bella famiglia (1994), Dina Ciraulo’s Touch (1994), and Len Guercio’s Tiramisu (2002). Perhaps, because of the limited availability of these shorts, Tamburri connects his analyses of many of these titles to thematic concerns that consistently define Ital-ian-American representations and frequently preoccupy schol-ars of Italian Americana. In discussing Guercio’s Tiramisu, for example, Tamburri takes on the frequent connection between Italian-American representations and organized crime. In Guercio’s short, viewers and some of the film’s peripheral characters alike make assumptions about the lead characters based on their ethnic appearances and mannerisms only to have those assumptions thwarted by the film’s narrative. In discussing The House I Live In, a short film that argues for religious and racial acceptance (rather than mere tolerance), Tamburri hints at an important argument that he will make ex-plicit later in the book: it is Italian-American short films and music videos where issues of race and prejudice are most likely to be engaged by Italian-American filmmakers. All of this makes a compelling case for the inclusion of short films in our definition of «Italian-American cinema». By ignoring these works, Italian-American Studies scholars have effectively silenced important voices within the community – voices that may, in fact, be less compromised than those who choose to work within the sometimes constraining milieu of commercially-based feature filmmaking industries like Hollywood.
Tamburri’s investigation of short films is groundbreaking in Italian-American Studies, but the author misses an opportunity here to speak to the larger field of Film Studies where the short film has also been starved of scholarly attention. In fairness to the author, his focus here is clearly on the current debates raging within Italian-American Studies, and through his analysis, he demonstrates that we are far from arriving at any definitive conclusions to the debates that preoccupy us. (At times, for instance, he rightly criticizes those Italian Americans who easily label complex representations as either «positive» or «negative,» but then, he sometimes resorts to the same language by labeling mafia representations as «negative.»)
Ultimately, Tamburri gives readers an adept analysis of current topics in Italian-American Studies, a complete synopsis of the ground we have covered, and a road map of where the field may go next. By shedding new light on classical texts and drawing attention to new filmmakers, Tamburri continues to expand our understanding of Italian Americana and uncovers a series of new topics that demand further attention. With Re-Viewing Italian Americana, he provides another invaluable contribution to the field.

Jonathan J. Cavallero (Bates College)

 

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