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Jonathan J. Cavallero, Hollywood’s Italian American Filmmakers. Capra, Scorsese, Savoca, Coppola, and Tarantino

Champagne (IL), University of Illinois Press, 2011, pp. 232, $27.00 (Paperback), $75.00 (Cloth)

An important contribution to the ever growing field of Italian American media studies, Jonathan J. Cavallero’s book surveys the work of five directors with Italian backgrounds who have worked within the Hollywood studio system. Mixing ethnic studies with rigorous formal analysis that is corroborated by compelling textual evidence, the author creates a path linking the work of otherwise very different filmmakers both in their approach to the medium and their understanding of their own Italian Americanness. Cavallero aptly summarizes his mission in the concluding chapter of the book when he writes that «through their movies and their public images, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, Nancy Savoca, Francis Ford Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino have worked to construct the imagined community of Italian America and have shaped the ways individual Italian Americans understand their own identities. By charting the ways in which their movies mobilize Italian ethnicity, we can better understand the relative acceptance of Italian Americans in American society and the Hollywood film industry at different historical moments» (p. 160).
In his review of literature (pp. 7-9), Cavallero argues that many works by eminent scholars in Italian American Studies lack the necessary breadth to truly give an account of how «Italian American experiences» (p. 7) have been embodied (or found their incarnation) in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera. The author maintains that by narrowing the scope of their analyses, Fred Gardaphé (2006) and Robert Casillo (2000) fail to account for the diversity and variety within Italian Americanness. But while Cavallero makes valid points in addressing the shortcomings of Bondanella (2004) and Lourdeaux’s (1990) studies, he is also guilty of the same sins, if sins they are: his choice of filmmakers is exclusionary just as much as Gardaphé’s, and he does not really illustrate why he chooses to focus specifically on them. This is not to say that Hollywood’s Italian American Filmmakers is not a book of a talented and rigorous scholar; in fact, his work on lesser-known films such as Frank Capra’s 1926 The Strong Man (pp. 15-19) is refreshingly detailed, and his reading of such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) in the key of ethnic studies proposes unvisited avenues for the scholar of the filmmakers whose careers he does survey.
In his premier chapter Cavallero attempts to disentangle the intricate question of Frank Capra’s relationship with his own ethnicity. He argues that, despite apparent efforts to underplay his ethnicity, «Capra introduced an ethnic aspect into a Hollywood cinema that often tried to erase ethnic difference. Rather than being of minor interest in a few Capra films, these ethnic immigrant concerns are a major aspect of his filmography, appearing in every phase of his nearly forty-year career» (p. 13). In tackling the films of Martin Scorsese in his second chapter, the author joins the conversation on works that have received a great deal of critical attention, both for their appropriation of the Italian American discourse and for achievements in cinematic art at large. Cavallero observes that «Scorsese’s fictional films about Italian Americans do not embrace the Italian American experience in order to level ethnic and racial prejudice. On the contrary, they perform an almost anthropological function» (p. 49). By critiquing Italian American culture from within, his films offer a vantage point through which a deeper understanding of its trappings and its shortcomings is possible. The author shows the originality of his voice in his remarks on Gangs of New York (2002), which are the most compelling pages in this chapter. Very insightful, albeit not entirely fleshed out, is also his discussion of the Italianamerican (1974) and The Departed (2006).
Nancy Savoca is perhaps the least Hollywood affiliated di-rector in this roster, considering her troubled relationship with the studio system and her strong identity as an independent filmmaker. As the subtitle announces, Cavallero’s chapter fo-cuses on «ethnicity, class, and gender,» concluding that «Savoca targets what Edvige Giunta has labeled the ‘double marginalization’ of Italian American Women. Banished from assimilated white American culture because of their ethnic identities and marginalized within their ethnic group because of their gender, these women struggle to find a place within their neighborhoods and families» (p. 79). The inclusion of Savoca in the book invites the author to compare her work to that of Martin Scorsese, a comparison that seems pertinent only to a limited extent, since two of her films explored in the volume focus on characters whose ethnicity is other than Italian American. Certainly, the representation of marginality across minority groups is a parameter that should be kept present throughout a discussion of ethnic filmmakers; however, the author himself cautioned against approaches that collapse difference, arguing that they tend to ignore the historical specificity of each immigration.
In the following chapter Cavallero uses the Godfather trilogy as a case study «to interrogate the myths that have sprung up around Italian American ethnicity, the assumptions that ground these myths, and the goals these myths seem to achieve» (p. 100). Here the theoretical frame of reference is «ethnic nostalgia,» a sentiment in which the Coppola films are undoubtedly steeped. While appreciative of the masterful cinematic achievements that are The Godfather Part I and Part II, Cavallero is intelligently not deferential to these classic titles, arguing that «the films’ nostalgia is seductive and encourages the embrace of a conservative worldview that relegates women and minorities to a subordinate status» (p. 101).
In the final chapter the author tackles Quentin Tarantino, whose take on ethnicity, he argues, is not to be sought in his characters, but in his appropriation of the source material, be-cause «for Tarantino, previous movies become the raw material from which he crafts new messages, and these messages reveal the role that media productions have played in this artist’s understanding of his ethnic self» (p. 127). Cavallero believes that it is via the postmodern techniques of pastiche and palimpsest that «the man who was once rather insensitive to ethnic issues has become a pop cosmopolitan» (p. 128). It is impossible to disagree with the author when he argues that the key to understanding Tarantino’s cinema lies in the study of his sources. However, Cavallero’s take on the director’s own ethnicity might be conditioned by his desire, as a scholar of Italian American cinema, to project onto his films a framework Tarantino has been famously reluctant to embrace.
Albeit not a comprehensive book, Cavallero’s study offers a fresh perspective in the field that stems from his balanced approach, which he peppers with personal anecdotes that illuminate the impact that cinema has had in the construction and understanding of his own identity and ethnicity («I looked at Big Night and I smiled, because I saw me and my family on screen» [p. 152]).

Alberto Zambenedetti
(College of Staten Island, City University of New York)

 

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