Sunday, October 21, 2012

Italian Silent Films Give Voice to the Immigrant Experience

A frightened 13 year old boy, pretending to be brave, kisses his father good-bye before climbing, alone, onto a steamship in the Genoa harbor.  His father whispers, “Remember, you are on a mission from God” just before leaving his last embrace.  The child climbs onto the ship with his small bag of belongings, wondering what Argentina will be like and how long it will take to find his mother, last known to be working as a maid for a wealthy Argentinean family.

This is the opening scene of the Italian silent film, Dagli Appennini alle Ande (From the Apennines to the Andes) by Umberto Paradisi (1916).  The film is adapted from the classic short story Cuore (Heart) by Edmondo De Amicis, written in 1886.  I viewed this rare, restored film at Leshowitz Hall, Cali School of Music, Montclair State University.  An original score was performed live by Marco Cappelli and Chris Opperman.  The film was provided by the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.

Although the film was richly emotional and engrossing on its own, it appeared within a larger context of Italian silent filmmaking.  This information was provided by Dr. Teresa Fiore who holds Inserra Endowed Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at MSU, and Prof. Jacqueline Reich of Cinema and Cultural Studies from Stony Brook University.  From both of their talks, a more detailed understanding emerged.

The short story upon which the film was based.

Prof. Reich opened her talk with film clips of two iconic representations of Italian immigration.  The first was from The Godfather Part II showing the young Vito Andolini (later Vito Corleone) smuggled out of Sicily and into America for his safety.  This film doesn’t tell the tale of the sea voyage itself, but focuses instead on his departure and emotional arrival in America.  The second clip was from 2006’s Nuovomondo (The Golden Door) which gives a rather detailed description of life aboard ship as it crosses the ocean, complete with its indignities and uncertainties.  Dagli Appennini alle Ande, made many decades before either of these examples, showed the loneliness and desolation of the young boy during his 27-day voyage.  However, his arrival in Argentina was not highlighted as a meaningful moment, perhaps because the rest of film followed the tortured search for his mother.

In Italy during the silent film era, venues for watching films were shared with other activities.  The phrase cinema ambulante (walking film) described the portability of these works, which were shown in a variety of places.  Opera houses, music halls, fair grounds and even churches (depending on the film) were quickly transformed into temporary movie theaters.

There were several genres popular with moviegoers at the time. Travelogues were often shown, allowing viewers who may have never left their villages with the chance to see what other countries might look like.  Films of natural disasters were also popular, such as the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906 and the earthquake of Messina in 1908.  During WWI, film was used to document many battles and general destruction.  Around 1916, a genre known as Diva Films emerged, featuring popular actresses in plots involving high fashion and high society.  Religious themes were also frequent celluloid topics.   

Meanwhile, across the ocean, New York was the center of American filmmaking and the city most densely populated with Italian immigrants.  This guaranteed an eager audience for immigrant-themed stories.  Many new Italian arrivals used these films as behavioral guides or cautionary tales. Either way, they were learning how to be American.

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