Life as an Italian-American through the eyes of 1915’s The Italian

By Staff Writer Seth Tamarkin.

For the last few semesters, Italian studies professors Dr. Rose Faccini and Dr. Matthew Sneider have used Italian film screenings to give students a glimpse of Italian culture and their various perspectives. For their fourth annual Italian film series, the screenings will focus on the Italian experience in America, starting with the one of the first movies depicting Italian-American life in 1915’s The Italian.

Colored in a Gameboy-ish sepia tone, the silent film depicts the immense hardships that protagonist Beppo faces as leaves Italy for America in search of a better life. The first part of the film is set in Italy where Beppo tries to marry his lover Annette while a rich Italian aristocrat tries to do the same.

This barely amounts to a conflict though, as the aristocrat is laughed at behind his back by Annette and Beppo. Once he gets the money, Beppo marries Annette but soon leaves for America, specifically New York. After scraping enough money through a shoeshine business, Beppo sends for his wife to come to America with him. This is where the real conflict of the film comes into fruition.

While the first half of the film resembles a lighthearted slapstick comedy, the second half shows the crushing realities that many Italian immigrant families encountered in lower Manhattan, namely crime and corruption.

Once Beppo’s newborn son goes under a fever, the Italian gondolier’s life falls into peril as he wanders the Manhattan streets for a cure. In a well-shot fight scene, Beppo gets robbed by muggers and ends up in Jail after he tries to defend himself from them.

As a new immigrant in a foreign country, it becomes clear that cops are as unsympathetic as the slimy muggers and corrupt public officials who prey on the immigrant population.
As the film continues and Beppo’s situation worsens, he eventually tries to seek revenge on one of those public officials in a truly disheartening way. By the end of the film, the viewer witnesses how the pitfalls of institutional racism conflict with the ‘American Dream’ with a decidedly not-happy ending.

Pretty heavy stuff for a 1915 film, especially one that Dr. Facchini mentions was originally titled after an ethnic slur for Italians, before lead actor George Beban pressured the directors to change the name.

Before the film, the professors talked about how George Beban, an Irish-American, wanted to be as authentic as possible with his depiction of Beppo. Dr. Sneider said the actor went so far as to go to Italian-American working sites and study their mannerisms and clothing styles.

It’s funny how different Italians were thought of back then, considering that nowadays hardly anyone would bat a lash at an Irish-American playing an Italian-American. The background to the film just shows how many immigrants in America share similar stories despite their different ethnicities.

After the movie, one audience member noticed how identical the Italian immigrants’ struggles were to the struggles of immigrants today, especially the scenes where police seem averse to giving poor immigrants any worthwhile help.

Although that film was made over 100 years ago, the story of an ethnicity’s struggle to live the American dream is universal to this day. The Italian has an air of pessimism that is rare in these sorts of movies too, containing a small, but powerfully somber story in the movie’s hour-long running time.

The film also contains numerous visionary shots such
To see the next exciting film depicting life as an Italian-American, make sure to go to the Italian Film Series next event on March 27, at 7:00pm in LARTS 117. The movie shown will be 2006’s The Golden Door.

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