(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Italianamerican
Where You Can Stream It: The Criterion Channel
The Pitch: In 1974, Martin Scorsese sat down with his parents, Catherine and Charles, and encouraged them to talk about their experiences as Italian immigrants in New York City.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: We could all use a little comfort food right now, even if it’s comfort food in the form of a movie. Italianamerican is a warm, inviting experience, making the viewer feel as if they really are sitting in the Scorsese family apartment, listening to amusing stories told by Scorsese’s incredibly endearing parents.
My father’s parents came to America from Italy (my paternal grandmother came over on the Moshulu, the same boat that brings young Vito Corleone to America in The Godfather Part II), and while I never met my paternal grandfather, I did know my grandmother for a while. She died when I was very young, and the memories are hazy, but they’re there, as if glimpsed through a thin, frayed layer of gauze. Watching Italianamerican felt like going back to my grandmother’s house in South Philadelphia – the plastic covering the furniture, the sauce cooking on the stove in big pots (I’m 99.9% the pots Catherine Scorsese uses here are the same pots my father used to make sauce, or gravy, as he usually called it).
And the stories. I don’t remember my grandmother’s stories, really. But I remember those of my father – of his youth, growing up in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 50s. Stories of his parents back in Italy. Stories of family members who had died long before I was born. Stories about, well, being Italian. That’s not to say Italianamerican will only appeal to people with Italian ancestry. This is such a lovely little film that it’s bound to make everyone feel enchanted, if only for a little while.
If you’ve seen Scorsese’s films, you’re bound to recognize his parents. His mother, who appears to be the most charming woman ever to walk to the earth, played Joe Pesci’s mother in GoodFellas. And his father, who starts the doc a little standoffish but slowly warms up as the cameras roll, played one of the mafioso who killed Joe Pesci later in that same film. Scorsese’s mother’s persona in GoodFellas was pretty much exactly her persona in real life, and as Scorsese sits and talks with her, the love he has for her radiates. The way he smiles sheepishly; the way he laughs at her jokes with that big, bawdy laugh of his.
As Italianamerican begins, Scorsese’s parents both seem a bit off. Charles looks uncomfortable, and Catherine appears to be playing for the cameras a bit (something Charles points out early, urging her to act natural). Sure enough, as the film progresses, and as Scorsese follows his parents around their apartment, the two stop behaving as if cameras are filming them, and instead start acting relaxed. And the stories begin. Stories of New York in the past. Stories of the neighborhood. Stories of fig trees growing in concrete backyards; of rooftops where you can see the New York skyline, shimmering like a dream; of food – so much food.
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