Director Martin Scorsese has built a decades-long career off of his explorations of his Italian American heritage, mostly through the more lurid aspects of his culture like the Mafia and criminals which, while they certainly gets butts into the seats, only represents a small slice of his people’s immigrant experience in America. After his directorial breakout MEAN STREETS brought the young director to mainstream Hollywood attention in 1973, Scorsese wanted to shed some light on an underserved aspect of Italian American culture—the humble, everyday working family. In 1974, he created the documentary ITALIANAMERICAN, turning the camera on his own parents in a bid to chronicle the simpler pleasures of his heritage, like the communal experience of dinner.
ITALIANAMERICAN takes place entirely within Scorsese’s parents’ apartment in Little Italy, with the director himself appearing onscreen as he casually interviews his father Charles and mother Catherine. They talk about their forty years of marriage to each other, as well as their early lives as first generation Americans and children of Sicilian immigrants. Catherine and Charles’ chemistry still sparks, even after four decades of marriage, and we can see how they informed and shaped key aspects of Martin’s own personality. Catherine in particular is quite the firecracker, joking to Martin and his friends and lovingly busting Charles’ balls at every opportunity.
ITALIANAMERICAN resembles documentaries of the era, with Scorsese and his cinematographer, Alec Hirschfeld, using natural light to capture the (what appears to be) 16mm film image. The handheld camerawork feels very improvisational, lending a cinema-verite feel to the proceedings. Scorsese accentuates the natural banter and atmosphere by splicing in family photographs, stock footage of Little Italy at the turn of the century, and Italian folk music in a bid to weave his parents’ story into the larger tapestry of the Italian-American experience.
The documentary finds Scorsese intimately engaging with his roots, both in the superficial aspects like when he asks his mother how she makes her spaghetti sauce (the recipe for which is actually included in the end credits), as well as the deeper aspects about the immigrant experience. One compelling part of the film concerns the idea of 1st generation Americans, born from immigrant parents, who as a result of their assimilation into American culture at birth gives them a worldview directly at odds with their parents—they see their cultural homeland, indeed their own flesh and blood, as exotic. They have a distant concept of a place they may never get to visit. They experience their heritage in black and white still frame, while their parents remember it in glorious Technicolor. For instance, Scorsese’s parents recount how they didn’t visit Italy themselves until their honeymoon—forty years after their wedding. That alone is a baffling concept to most second, third, fourth, etc- generation Americans, who have enjoyed the benefits of an upward mobility built on the foundation of their ancestors’ pursuit of the American dream. In exploring his heritage in this way, Scorsese is able to connect with a larger audience that may not share his Italian ancestry but shares a common human experience within their own family history.
While it’s a relatively minor work within Scorsese’s canon, even within his body of documentary work, ITALIANAMERICANis still an important one. It’s an unfiltered view into the young director at his most intimate and private—sharing a meal with the people who shaped him into the man he is today.
ITALIANAMERICAN is currently available on Youtube via the embed above.
Produced by: Elaine Attias, Saul Rubin, Bert Lovitt
Written by: Mardik Martin, Lawrence D. Cohen
Director of Photography: Alec Hirschfeld
Edited by: Bert Lovitt