Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Film of Martin Scorsese Part V: Italianamerican

Italianamerican (1974) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Lawrence D. Cohen & Mardik Martin.
Featuring: Catherine Scorsese, Charles Scorsese, Martin Scorsese.

Italianamerican is a short (49 minute) documentary that Martin Scorsese shot in his parents Elizabeth Street apartment in 1974. The film is essentially a long conversation between Scorsese and his parents – Charlie and Catherine – about their experiences growing up in New York City as the children of Italian immigrants. By its own nature, this is not the most exciting feature in Scorsese’s career, but it is a fascinating little documentary nonetheless.

In a sense, we have seen this movie before. We have all heard countless immigrant stories told in countless movies, books and TV specials, but what makes Italianamerican interesting is that we haven’t heard this story, about these people. And it must be said that Charlie, and especially Catherine Scorsese, are excellent storytellers.

Throughout the movie, we hear stories about what the Scorsese’s childhoods were like in New York. Both came from large families, to parents who didn’t have a lot of money. They were all scrunched together in tiny tenement apartment buildings, and when relatives came over from the old country, you took them in, even though you already had 11 people living in a four room apartment. The Scorseses talk of a time long gone – when essentially the neighbors in your building became a part of your extended family. Charlie tells a story that if he didn’t like what his mother was cooking for dinner, he’d just go downstairs and see what the neighbors were having.

The film, more than anything, is a loving tribute that Scorsese pays his parents, and by extension his grandparents, who they talk about so lovingly. Times were hard on them, but they came together and survived it. The film is fairly conventionally shot for a documentary – talking heads interspersed with old photos, but Scorsese still manages to get a tracking shot in as he follows his mother from the living room to the kitchen as she makes her special tomato sauce.

The thing I enjoyed most about Italianamerican is watching the way Scorsese and his parents interact with each other. Notice a scene where Charlie stops Catherine in the middle of a story to comment on Scorsese’s chipped tooth, and how they all stop to examine it briefly.

Italianamerican is essential viewing for Scorsese fans. It is the most personal glimpse he gives us into his upbringing and his roots, and it shows how and why Scorsese is interested in the subjects that he is (one of the reasons he undoubtedly made Gangs of New York was to tell an “immigrant” story, even though the immigrants in that movie are Irish, who his father tells him used to live in the same neighborhood until the Italians moved in). It is a real treat to see Catherine Scorsese tell her stories. Scorsese cast her in five of his movies (most famously in GoodFellas), always playing somebody’s mother. For him, she was the quintessential, ideal mother.

For non-Scorsese fans, the movie will likely be nothing more than a mere curiosity piece. Yes, it is interesting on its own terms, but it is special because of the glimpse we get at a great artist and his roots. While the film does not come close rivaling Scorsese’s best documentaries, it is still a fine little film.

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