Unholy Manifestations: Cultural Transformation
as Hereticism in the films of De Michiel, Ferrara,
Savoca, and Scorsese
by Pasquale Verdicchio
You don’t make up for your sins in church,
you do it in the streets, you do it at home...
the rest is bullshit and you know it.
The mafioso, the violent or mercurial individual, are perhaps the most common typifications of Italians. But to these we must also add the Roman Catholic, the humble, devout and obsequious Italian American as a reassuring alternative to the mafioso. Nevertheless, the Italian American in his Sunday-best is a foreigner, and his blending of urban and rural ways represents a dangerous instigation and personifies, among other things, including a powerful proletarian and sub-proletarian threat, a distinct sense of Catholicism’s threat to Protestantism. Italian Catholicism actually envelops its participants in a blanket of public communal participation and reassurance through its close associations with so-called folk beliefs and the celebration of religious aspects not condoned but tolerated by the Church. This unorthodoxy, coupled with what has been represented as the moral “easy way out” of confession, has been responsible for the suggestion that Catholicism itself is tightly enmeshed with criminality, and the suggestion that, as such, Italians are inherently criminal. This rather unsophisticated rationale and association was used as recently as 1996 by a San Diego weekly in a series of sensationalist articles on the San Diego mob of years past.
Despite a growing critical body on Italian North-American culture, Leo Lourdeaux’s book, Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese (1990), remains the most pertinent study on film. Lourdeaux obviously draws a parallel between these two groups based on their religious affiliations, and in his book concentrates almost exclusively on religious representations in the films of the two. Lourdeaux “frames” Italian and Irish culture in America with the material of Catholicism through three principles that he recalls from theologian Richard McBrien, and which he applies to readings of the films by the above-named directors in a rather superficial manner. The author’s point is to demonstrate that both Irish and Italian cultures offer aspects of family, community, and beliefs that are found to be offensive by WASP culture. The reason for this is that they function as a cultural glue that binds the ethnic individual to a stable and continuous collective tradition, a condition of which WASPS are also said to be also extremely jealous. The three principles Lourdeaux identifies are “communion, mediation, and sacramentality” (14-26).
The first principle, communion, establishes Irish and Italian difference from the WASP dominant culture in its emphasis of community not only between individuals and God but among individuals. In contrast to Protestants, Catholics are said to be “radically social beings.” The former live each relationship as individuals yet apparently desire “the communal life of Catholics, [their] love of life, the appreciation of the body and the senses, of joy and celebration...” (16). The second principle of mediation is also closely related to community. It is within the structure of a community that individuals find readily accessible mediators to resolve conflicts. Therefore the mediating body of the Church also finds significance in this context as reflected in how the role of mediators is accepted and extended beyond it into each community. The last principle, sacramentality, is held to be the most characteristic and central to the identity of Catholicism (18). Most importantly, it is recognized as a fusion of both spiritual manifestation through the carriers of divine presence (the sacraments), and the celebration of the material world through a whole series of rites, rituals, customs and traditions that, once again, define and form community.
While Lourdeaux’s categories can be quite useful in principle, it is a different matter when we consider a less restricted situation. First of all, there is a strong discrepancy in the relationship between the two Catholic groups in the U.S., the Irish and the Italians. The antagonism that might exist between the two is to a great extent related to their differences as they emerge from their supposed religious commonalities. The Catholic church in North America was mostly controlled by the Irish and Germans, a situation that did not bode well for Italians. The history of clashes is long and well documented. Also of great importance is the fact that the Church’s status as an institution made it a natural adversary to the masses of immigrants who equated its power with the oppressive forces that had ruled their lives in Italy. The Church referred to this as the “Italian problem” which, in association with many of the very particular practices of Italian immigrants, which were termed “a hideous web of superstition,” further complicated the relationship. At bottom, Italian Catholicism differs from the Irish brand in that its peculiarities were taken to represent a threat to Catholicism itself. (Laurdeaux, ---)
The thread I will follow here offers no universally applicable set of parameters and no umbrella description of Italian American religiosity. Neither is it meant to be an exhaustive reading of any of these multilayered films. Even a cursory look into their commentary on race, gender and class relations will turn up a wealth of critical possibilities. On the other hand, while the specificity of religious celebrations and rituals, mostly associated with the Saints and variety of Madonne venerated in particular towns and regions, offers an incredibly diverse set of circumstances, it is also largely true that over the decades the Italian North American set of cultural referents has filtered itself down to a fairly restricted number. I have always stressed my view of Italian North American culture as an integral if not integrated part of Italian culture. As such, it could also be viewed as something that, as a necessity dictated by its encounter with other cultures abroad and its complex history with the culture it left behind in Italy, evolved its own character that make of it somewhat of an Italian regional culture.
“In the name of the farther”
While the films I discuss here, Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1972), Household Saints (Nancy Savoca, 1993), The Funeral (Abel Ferrara, 1996), and Tarantella (Helena De Michiel, 1995), are by no means unique in their insights into a particular evolution or status of religiosity for Italian Americans, they are representative of religious rootedness and radicalism. In other words, these films propose new ways of making spirituality and religiosity viable and available components of contemporary life, all the while paying heed and homage to the cultural heritage of the immigrant group itself, rather than to an institution external to it. The driving force behind these radical attempts appears to be an extended search for redemption, a conscious double game in which one must pay for one’s own radicalism, and do penance for the opportunity to be true to one’s history. If there is a convergence between Italian and Irish Catholics in the U.S. it is to be found here. Traditionally, penance is where the two groups divide, the Irish emphasizing its continuous place in everyday life. Yet, penance was also pushed by the Irish priests upon their Italian pupils. Scorsese, among others, investigates this dichotomy and wrestles with a conflicted religious education.
This innovative element of Italian American filmmakers, which has been influential in American and international film, is buttressed by another no less important tendency that finds correspondence in any number of cultures, and that is their approach to history. A great number of Italian North American films begin and unfold within the terms of what might be called “creation myths.” That is, they begin at some point in time that is generative, even if they have created that point of reference for themselves. From there, they proceed toward a present in a manner that is often times incongruous and illogical. These creation myths are based on the meeting and cross-influence of individual lives and their cultures. Once disrupted, as by emigration, itself now part of mythic history, the social and cultural balance must take on new patterns of adaptation and resiliance. This tact, of beginning from a “beginning”, indicates a need to to point out discrepancies in historical memory, a re-directioning in relation to prescribed norms, and to give voice to the unheard or unmanifested, and to point out discrepancies in historical memory.
And what, one might ask, do these myths achieve, what is their function if we are in fact concerned with history? I would suggest that we can no longer talk of a historical realism when discussing filmic representations in this context, and that, in fact, a reconceptualization of realism is necessary that is an adjustment away from the forces of historical determinism and specific social, political and economic situations past and present. These films, in their wide range of registers respond to this call for the depiction of an alternative reality and their clear attempts toward the enablement of community.
Scorsese’s Meaning Streets
In Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese proposes and image of Little Italy that is distant from the festive, sunny streets of a community celebrating its ethnicity in food and ritual. This film takes place mostly in the dark, non-descript, and always misleading, bowels of a neighbourhood bar and in the dark of the streets. It is the story of a groups of friends who frequent each other more to be less alone than from friendship. It is the story of one of them, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who dares graft his spiritual life onto the pavement of the streets that are his life.
The opening shot of Mean Streets is an all-enveloping darkness out of which rises a voice. It is a voice that offers guidance. This genesis of meaning, from which a particular history will become apparent, offers advice the relevance of which the viewer will discover in time: “You don’t make up for your sins in church, you do it in the streets, you do it at home...the rest is bullshit and you know it.” With this, Charlie wakes up and moves to a mirror. The mirror is an important device for Scorsese, one through which he reminds the viewer as to the function of film not as a re-presentation of the world but as an alternative view of it. The opening scene then offers not the doubled image of the first character but another and different image of him. In short, Mean Streets develops into a reflection of Charlie, whose figure is then associated with a variety of icons related to religion and spirituality, running numbers and extortion, passion and violence, all of which are not mere contradictory divisions within the character. The contradiction would be to say that Charlie is pained by this split, which he is not. Charlie represents an alternative to two roads that are deemed separate and unbridgeable.
In this context, the search for one’s own difference might be tied up in feelings of guilt projecting from struggle of the split, all of which can be resolved through penance. But Charlie is a believer and a hood, and he is quite comfortable with it. He is an irritative contradiction to others. Charlie’s character is contrasted by his friends and acquaintances who see his religiosity as some sort of aberration, something he will some day wake up to. In the meantime, Charlie exports his religiosity to the streets. He often blesses people, places and drinks in what might seem a parody but is actually a tentative attempt at placing spiritual ritualism in the world. Charlie has taken it upon himself to carry out good acts and to look after the welfare of Johnny (De Niro), who is a little wild. We are introduced to him as he blows up a mailbox, and it becomes apparent in the film that Charlie has to some extent come to think of Johnny as his penance. On the other hand, we hear Johnny’s ideas about this in an overdub: “these things don’t mean shit to me they’re just words...if I do something wrong I wanna pay for it my way...so I do my own penance for my own sins.” Does this mean that Johnny is responsible for his own actions, while Charlie relies on the church to
defer responsibility? If for Johnny penance is just words, for Tony, another pal in the group, religion is “just business, it’s an organization.” In this reading, the street reading, religion is defined as a competitive business/organization that has entrapped the gullible Charlie.
Throughout the film, Charlie tries to extend the initial suggestion of the dream voice by attempting to find and provide salvation on the streets and not only in church. He too longs for salvation and considers himself a sufferer for the cause of mankind. Appropriately, in a number of shots he is associated with Christ through juxtaposition with depictions of crucifixion or shot by the camera in a crucified position. And, in a conversation with his girl Teresa, he draws an analogy between himself and St. Francis, to which she answers: “St. Francis didn’t run numbers.”
Redemption, as a major theme in the works of Scorsese and other Italian American film-makers, is proposed as potentially achievable not through the conventional means of religious penance but in an otherwise organized system. Such a system would be of one’s own making, outside of the norm; marginal yet intimately tied to it through what might be termed a heretical adherence to it conditioned by an empirical experience within the world. Charlie becomes a vector for this challenge that many (his friends) do not appear to share, convinced that the two worlds are incompatible.
The idea and importance of making up for one’s sins in the street and in the home is that these are sites of social communion. Redemption then is associated with the communal spirit that may be found in any social group. To call up a great American epic, the Godfather provides the idea of redemption as enabled through family, or in the establishment of a collective against an unreceptive reality. The films of Abel Ferrara also touch upon this in a strong and innovative manner through the varied subjects he chooses to address. The Bad Lieutenant, The Body Snatchers, The Addiction, and The Funeral are similarly all attempts at defining the collective as a functional hope toward survival and in opposition to another more amorphous and threatening collective whose main function is absorptive and assimilative, with a tendency to erase difference. In Bad Lieutenant the attempt is through drugs, in Body Snatchers it is in the struggle against assimilation, in The Addiction it is the undermining of blood descendancy via vampirism, and in The Funeral the family takes center-stage as the territory to be explored. No matter how you slice it, Abel Ferrara’s films are about conformism, assimilation, the conflicts of identity, and the attempt to maintain relationships as one participates in their undoing.
The Funeral is the story of three brothers Ray (Christopher Walken), Chez (Chris Penn), and Johnny (Vincento Gallo) and their families. The film opens with Johnny’s funeral, who is the youngest of the three. We find out that he has been shot by an unknown perpetrator. Ray, the eldest, suspects a rival thug, politician and businessman, mostly for the reason that Johnny was diddling his wife “three times a week.” In flashback, the thug and Johnny are also shown to have ideological differences. Johnny is a member of the Communist Party and is against the strike-breaking tactics that the thug has convinced the other two brothers to undertake in their support of him.
To give such depth to a character in this context is a distinguishing detail that marks this film’s relevance in its depictions of Italian men. For example, Richard Gere is quoted as saying that it was “wonderful to have the chance to play a physical, non-intellectual individual” by playing an Italian American character in Bloodbrothers. On the other hand, in The Funeral, Johnny declares his passion for films, talks about books and reading, and has a political conscience. He is a declared anti-capitalist and, by his involvement in the Communist Party, would automatically also be declared an anti-American. Johnny’s politics seem to be important to his family. When older brother Ray faces down Johnny’s suspected killer, who lashes out calling Johnny all sorts of names associated with his politics, including “anarchist,” Ray is quick to correct him with: “No, my brother was a Communist.”
Indeed, Johnny values the community of this immediate and extended family, as do his brothers Ray and Chez. It is there that he finds a mediative point of reference, even in death, in his brother Ray. Ray, then, is not quite the animal that even his wife has come to view him as. And, even if we must disagree with it, he in fact seems to hold some moral as well as political conviction. He demonstrates a certain amount of introspective philosophizing energy in arguing with his wife about what is right and wrong. And, he lets go of the first suspect when he comes to believe that he may be innocent. He is almost ready to let go the confessed killer, who says he killed Johnny because he had raped his fiance, until he finds out that he has been lied to. These actions illustrate Ray’s concept of honor, indicating that it extends beyond himself and his family. He fulfills his role as mediator by considering the value of honor to those that his family may have dishonored, and he is ready to reach out and forgive. He is also shown to hold some awareness of the contradictions of inter-faction fighting. Sensing a lack of community and solidarity, Ray is moved to say to his rival and first suspected killer: “We should be taking over Ford Motor Co. and instead we’re killing each other.”
In making Ray and Johnny not wholly unsympathetic characters, I don’t believe that Ferrara means to gloss over the dreadful side of organized crime. The balance, or rather imbalance, of the situation is represented in the figure of the third brother, Chez. He is the inherent violent and unpredictable factor in this sort of existence. The potentially dangerous element that will pull everyone down with him through violence, insanity and a disregard for an ordered system of action and mutual support.
The strongest impression in the film is made by one of the wives, Ray’s wife Jean (played by Annabella Sciorra). She, as marginal as the other women in the film, expresses most fully the brothers’ relationship with/in organized criminality, but also their self-inscription within a defeating oppressive attitude. She demonstrates a deep knowledge of the mechanisms at work among the men that have defined the patterns of their lives, and correctly recognizes Chez’s (and this business’) penchant for self-destructive violence and defines him as a time-bomb. In addressing Johnny’s girlfriend, Jean tells her: “We ought to be throwing you a party because of this. You ought to be celebrating the fact that you’re not going to become one of their wives. The Temples, they pass themselves off as tough, rugged individualists, and we fall for it. But they’re criminals. They’re criminals because they’ve never risen above their heartless, illiterate upbringing. And there’s nothing, absolutely nothing romantic about it.” True, and in fact, as a critique of the romanticized mafioso image, The Funeral does not exclude the fact that these individuals may be able to think.
Nancy Savoca’s Household Saints and Elena De Michiel’s Tarantella are representative of two films that attempt to grasp at the empirical edges of displaced culture as a redemptive force, through worlds of their own making. The fact that these film-makers are both women may testify to the fact that women have been forced to find and define alternative modes of expression and as such seem to have found more useful references in folk culture and ritual than in what I earlier referred to as street hereticism. Tarantella, with Mira Sorvino and Rose Gregorio, will immediately cause some viewers to bristle at the hint of nostalgia carried by the title, at the distant custom that apparently has not connection to Italian Americans in the 1990s. Nevertheless, with the title one begins to feel the strains of the music, the dance, the trance, the rhythms. Tarantella is a film about an Italian American woman photographer, Diana Di Sorella (Sorvino). Her mother’s death sends her back to her childhood home, where she has to deal with the memory of her mother, and embark on an exploration of the effects of her death. Having grown distant from her family and culture, Diana returns to her mother’s house to take care of the funeral arrangements, and to sell the house and belongings. Her return to the old neighborhood is for Diana a confrontation with all the things she had left behind, discounted, and tried to forget. She arrives still despising her background, which she will slowly begin to reassess through the help of Pina (played by Rose Gregorio), her mother’s neighbor and confidant. Pina initiates Diana to her mother’s hidden history via a “libro della casa” that holds scraps and pieces of her history from before her migration from Sicily to the U.S. Pina offers to become Diana’s comare and guide in her voyage through her mother’s story, and possibly to herself. Through this process of associations, Pina and Diana’s mother, Pina and Diana, and eventually Diana and her mother, the last name Di Sorella takes on the added meaning of sisterhood. It will be this sisterhood to provide Diana with the tools for a fuller understanding of herself and her background.
As the film opens we meet Diana the photographer intent at work photographing the intricate patterns created by contemporary architecture. Reflections, stark architectural and color contrasts, geometric oppositions, and the like, are the subjects of Diana’s photographs. No people. In fact, when three little girls ask her to take their picture she tells them to leave her alone, “can’t you see I’m trying to work.” This opening sequence is all important in establishing Diana’s difficulty in dealing with people and situations that appear to be less than organized, symmetrical, and controlled. Her apartment reflects this condition. Everything neat. Nothing out of place. Everything geometrically placed to complement everything else. Everything organized to contrast a life and culture she deems chaotic. But what Diane has in fact created for herself is a dead living space where order and the lack of intimacy reign supreme. Diana’s boyfriend, Matt, is similarly positioned as a supporting character in this facade. When Diana arrives home after her shoot, Matt greets her unemotionally. When she asks what’s up, he plainly states “your mother’s dead,” no emotion, no comforting comment or physical contact. He is, in effect, a part of the predictable furniture.
While Diana is obviously shocked at the news, her reaction to it quickly shifts to a consideration of the situation and the danger it represents in that it may pull her back into an orbit of influence that she does not long to re-enter. In pulling a black dress from her closet, she asks Matt “is it Italian enough?” Of course, posed to her boyfriend, the question is rhetorical, expressive of the stereotypical image that a black-dress conveys, one that is associated with Italians in the popular imagination. What is more important is that the question demonstrates Diana’s distance from her culture and her own misunderstanding of the meaning and value of mourning: “Do I shroud myself in mourning for the rest of my life?” With this statement Diana defines her mother as an imposition and influence that, in her eyes, defies even the finality of death.
Whether an imposition or a catalyst, her mother’s death causes Diana to have to face her past, her neighborhood, her heritage, and herself. The first glimpse we get of Diana’s old neighborhood is in fact during her mother’s funereal procession. The faces and places she had escaped are now staring back at her as the procession weaves its way through the neighborhood. Diana’s sense of distance and non-belonging is palpable. When she visits a neighborhood caffè-bar, Diana’s conversation with the bar-tender, whom she appears to know, is about the neighborhood. While the man is rather glad to say that the neighborhood hasn’t changed much, and that “consistency is a good thing,” the camera tracks around the shop to show only men playing cards and having fun. As this first image of Italian maschilist culture sinks in Diana’s sense of it is also stated in her answer to the bar-tender: “As long as you fit in.” In the tally that the viewer must begin to take in this film, we find ourselves accumulating a series of images and signifying elements that stress and emphasize common-places about Italians: maschilism, oppressive family situations, and religiosity among others. We are asked to look beyond these through a process of discovery that begins with Diana’s exploration of her mother’s diary, a tale that narrates a generational defiance of male rule and tradition.
As viewers, we have already been initiated by the film’s title into a particular cultural dimension. And, as we might have questioned the value of citing the tarantella, we must now extend our inquiry to include Diana’s search. The question we must ask is not whether or not these remote customs are useful to us today, but how they might be useful. The death of Diana’s mother acts as an initiation into her culture through an important ritual that she undertakes even against her misunderstanding of it: mourning. For those interested in following up the various manifestations of this custom in southern Italy and elsewhere, the work of Ernesto De Martino and Luigi Lombardi Satriani will be of interest.
The black dress and mourning and the men-only public place are only a few of the stereotypes in which Diana herself participates. When she returns to her mother’s empty house she makes espresso and plays opera records. What these innocent and almost automatic actions reveal for us is that the line between stereotype and ritualistic or customary behavior is a thin one, as is the one between a culture one wishes to shed and the culture that has been made impalpable. Within the context of Tarantella the elements of mourning that are played out are of course removed from a more formal ritual. Even so, Pina’s help, and the recuperation of history through her mother’s diary, are important elements of mourning and confirmation of self-worth.
The process of mourning is instigated by the recognition and the emphasis of a loss of presence through a rituality that is not associated with the Church but with folk customs. The concept and practice of mourning is equally applicable to emigration (remember le vedove bianche, and the celebration of emigration as a death), and to the loss of one’ s culture, as it is to the death of an individual. The death of a loved-one, a parent, and possibly the only link to one’s past is representative of the onset of a crisis which undermines not only day to day life, but also the order of relations. The tie between people and things (property) is an important part of mourning in cultures where the transmittance of goods from the household in not a given. In peasant culture, the loss of the head of the family was also taken to represent the loss of land, therefore the “presenza smarrita” (lost presence) refers both to the dead individual and to the landless children (“figli sterrati”). Lombardi Satriani observes that “without roots and without future prospects the lost presence will find, in the processes of refoundation and reintegration, the possibility of a new domesticity, of a new land. It will be a case of reinventing the world” (207).
Tarantella is as much about mourning the loss of the daughter as it is of the mother. Through the course of the film, with the aid of Pina, Diana acquires the power to look beyond the surface of things. The tarantella is usually associated with happy-go-lucky and gregarious southern Italians. As Diana and Pina walk along the streets of the neighborhood they see a woman dance the tarantella accompanied by a guitar, mandolin, and accordion trio. “Talk about ethnic! I remember that from weddings way back. A bunch of old ladies jumping around in black. Isn’t it about dancing out poison, from spider bites or something?” observes Diana, making the only associations she knows of for the dance. Pina clarifies with “it’s an old tradition, especially for us. The music and dancing were supposed to cure the poison. Physical release of the pain inside. The tarantella is very powerful.” As the dancer approaches them, Pina, protective of the dance’s powers, says to her “Go away! That’s not the way it’s supposed to be! Tarantella is not like that.” and then says to Diana.”
The reclamation of the function and power of the tarantella illustrates precisely the process of reinvention in which Diana must partake. Her condition is not uncommon and it is not only an Italian phenomenon. Rather, it is a symptom of displacement and a feeling of cultural incongruence that, as this film suggests, can be at least in-part be overcome by tapping into the past. When she volunteers to become Diana’s comare, she tells the younger woman, who doesn’t see the need for Pina’s help, that it’s good to be independent, but “be like that by knowing who you are not by being afraid.” Because it will be informed by history, the result will be a world of Diana’s own making well beyond the one she previously thought familiar and detested.
Dreams to House and to Hold
Nancy Savoca’s Household Saints is an odd mixture of alternative history, superstition, folklore, and spirituality. I say odd because it appears to propose religiosity as a virtue while also presenting it as a disruptive force to the basic social unit it supposedly supports: the family. If we apply a similar resource of reading to this film as we have to the others it should become clear that it does indeed fall into what we may call a desirous environment that unveils Italian American necessity for points of reference that are rooted in a very particular cultural experience. And so, this film with a conventional introduction to an odd circumstance, presents the particular (the story of the Santangelos and their daughter Teresa) against the norm.
A back-yard lunch of sausages: “Remember the sausages we used to get at Santangelo. They used to call it miracle sausage. You know the story?” “I’ll tell you the story but we’ve got to start with her parents, when they first got together.” “It was in the heat wave of ‘49, during the feast of San Gennaro ...” “And it happened, by the grace of God, that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a pinochle game.” As always, the dining table becomes the center of storytelling and reminiscence. Food, its generation and its association to miracles is a point of departure. Eventually the present narrating the past moves into flashback, so that we are generating in reverse. Of course, in the telling, the story’s details become exaggerated: an incredible heat-wave, the long drawn-out pinochle game, the ever-increasing prize money, and the father’s eventual loss of his daughter, but that is the material of myths.
The father is a hapless and helpless man who runs a radio fix-it shop; the brother lives in a fantasy world in which he longs for the daughter of a Chinese launderer through the opera Madame Butterfly; the daughter, Catherine, when she’s not keeping house or cooking, spends her time reading glamour magazines in her room. A believer that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, her father invites Santangelo and his mother for dinner. To spite him and make sure Santangelo is not interested, Catherine cooks a horrible meal. But Santangelo is not to be refused and, despite his mother’s warnings, who asserts that the marriage will end badly because “she served raw meat, dirty escarole, tomatoes, [and there was] hair [in the food] [...] every one of those things [being] a bad omen,” eventually weds Catherine.
In what amounts to a foreshadowing, in their wedding-night lovemaking the name Santangelo (a name not to be taken lightly) becomes a mantra to Catherine. The whole room opens up into a blue cloudstrewn sky with the chanting of angels. As Santangelo moves over her, his crucifix strokes her body. In the next scene she is expecting a child. As Mrs. Santangelo’s unhappiness about Catherine’s influence around the house begins to show, her superstitions begin to haunt Catherine. ”You’re gonna give birth to a chicken,” she states when she catches Catherine observing her husband killing a turkey. All this works to get Catherine under her influence and follow her directives to pray to Sant’Anna. But alas, the baby is born dead. “I barely had time to baptize it” says the mother “go, go to your wife, go see what you won in the pinochle game,” thereby emphasizing her victory.
Catherine drops into the depths of a depression that finally ends one Easter Sunday. She wakes up and to find that all her neglected plants are in flower. It feels as if a miracle has taken place. She and Santangelo make love and, out of this resurrection, a daughter will be born. Indeed a miracle has taken place, the happy couple finds Mrs. Santangelo dead in the kitchen. Catherine takes over her mother-in-law’s chores, including making sausages, which involves her in the propagation of custom and tradition...and superstition. But she takes an active part in finding out about old wives tales regarding childbearing. And, as we hear her read we are shown her cleaning up the house of her mother in law’s things.
The child turns out to be a girl, Teresa. During her schooling at a Catholic school the child is so taken by the miracle of Lourdes that she becomes convinced that Jesus wants her to convey his message; she finds her grandmothers religious paraphernalia and, to her mother’s shock, decorates her room with them. Teresa grows up a believer and we are introduced to the young teenager as she wins an essay prize. She dedicates her life to St. Teresa and decides to join the Carmelites. Her father objects, and her obsession grows and she goes on a diet of bread and water, until one day she is awakened by frying sausages. In an act that for her defines her weakness, she walks to kitchen and begins eating them. When Catherine walks in to see what is going on we as viewers are offered her shocked vision of her mother-in-law at the stove becoming Teresa. Mrs. Santangelo’s curse on Catherine and her children continues.
In her decision to serve the Lord otherwise, Teresa decides to go to college. There she meets the ambitious Villanova. Believing it is the will of God, she lets him have sex with her. She moves in with him, and one day, as she is ironing one of his shirts, she has a vision. Christ thanks her for “grooming one of his lambs” (Christ is the usual fair and blue eyed) and performs a miracle: he multiplies Villanova’s red and white checkered shirt. As her condition spirals out of control she ends up in a clinic, where she appears to have regular conversations with Christ. During her parents’ visit she talks about playing pinochle with God and discovering that he cheats. Her life and her beliefs have all come down to cheating at pinochle, full circle with her mother and father’s story. Back home, the next morning the Santangelos get the call that their daughter “has gone to god,” and upon returning to the clinic they find the garden in full bloom. In the room the father smells roses...”don’t you smell it?” and finds stigmata on her hands. Catherine insists that it’s not a miracle, but they are told that on the day Teresa died all the patients at the clinic were cured. And, in extension of the miracle, from that day on the sausages her parents made and sold cured all sorts of diseases. This last scene connects us back to the storytelling beginning in the backyard, where one of the daughters expresses her skepticism. “Look ma, I know lots of women who go crazy at the ironing board. Just because she said she saw Christ doesn’t’ make her a saint.” Are these the words of a non-believer or are they the words that seek to unveil the plight of women ensconced in an oppressive tradition that covers up act of unconventionality and rebellion through stories such as the one we have just witnessed? I would venture to say that this last suggestion is possibly the most fruitful to follow. Through the parody of sainthood and belief in miracles that keep a woman tied to the ironing board and kitchen stove so as to “groom” the lambs of Christ, we must finally take this film as the long road to enlightenment regarding some negative aspects of our culture and propose the heretical feminist perspective as an alternative.
Heretical Salvation and the Family
The films I have discussed all contrast group coherence and a sense of community to external pressures to conform, assimilate or integrate in ways that would diminish communal interaction and responsibility. In Household Saints strict and obsessive religious belief and its imposition on the lives of women is shown, in contradiction to what it would propose, to be destructive to them and their families. Tarantella proposes a return and reinterpretation of tradition outside of the impositions of officiality and stereotype. The Funeral and Mean Streets elevate individuals within their realm of street life and assign their actions a particularity of vision and moral centeredness that we might not necessarily consider theirs.
In conclusion, however, I cannot help but return with a brief tip of the hat to The Godfather, because it is here that a whole cosmology of Italian American signifiers is created that has had influence on every film-maker since its release. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, still stands as the most comprehensive and monumental treatment of an American origins myth to this day. How is an American formed, what constitutes American culture? The Godfather addresses these issues through the lens of the immigrant experience and class relationships.
The religious reference in the title is obvious but, again, it is extracted from its religious institutional context and used in a more popular understanding of the function of a godfather. On the metaphorical streets of America, the streets paved with gold, redemption is available if one is able and willing to take it. Americans like to point out that in the U.S. freedom is all encompassing, to the extent that one is also “free to fail.” But redemption always requires a sacrifice. In The Godfather, of course, it is Michael’s abandonment of a naive notion of the American Dream. Michael Corleone was in some way different from the “family,” Michael is the “American” son. He has fought in World War II, he is a patriotic American whose values are American and an Italian well on his way to assimilation. In the film itself this is represented by his distance from his family, his WASP girlfriend, and the derisive manner in which he recounts to her his family’s habits and their “business.” Eventually Michael Corleone perceives that American society does not treat everyone equally, and that an autonomous and communal power structure must be put in place to counter the selective power structure of a society that closes certain doors to some of its citizens. Ironically, the Mafia becomes a mechanism through which to achieve legitimacy and respectability.
All these elements are encapsulated in the opening scene of the film and expanded upon through the rest of it. Redemption is the promise of that opening scene, but it is not available through religious penance, only through heretical challenges to institutions such as the Church and the State. In the end we must look back on the traditional meanings assigned to History and its writing, and reassess their unquestioned value and legitimacy. Perhaps it is merely a matter of addressing history as a living culture that is in constant flux and can only be tentative in its definitions. The saying that History is written by the victors intentionally stresses its elitism and gloats over its position and its prejudices, and via them undermines its validity to a whole society. Italian North American film-makers make up an important portion of the cultural mythology/history of their homeland in their production of visual images as frames of reference that, in their deconstruction and reconstruction of themselves as fluctuating alternatives and in their applications as cultural sounding boards expand beyond the borders of an isolated experience to become commentaries on any number of struggles within a society and, as such, become undeniable and essential works of art.
Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather. (1972)
De Michiel, . Tarantella. (1995)
Ferrara, Able. The Bad Lieutenant. (1992)
___________. The Addiction. (1995)
___________. Bodysnatchers. (1993)
___________. The Funeral. (1997)
Lourdeaux, Leo. Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese.
(Temple: Temple University Press, 1990).
Savoca, Nancy. Dogfight. (1991)
___________. Household Saints. (1993)
___________. True Love. (1989)
Scorsese, Martin. Mean Streets. (1973)
___________. Italianamerican. (1970)
___________. Goodfellas. (1990)
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