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  • Why Do Italians Want to Honor Actor Robert De Niro?
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author only and are not necessarily shared by the proprietors, editors or other writers at

    AUGUST 16, 2004 - As of last week, Italian Americans and Italians in Italy were at odds over whether the Italian government should bestow honorary citizenship on Italian American actor Robert De Niro. About 600,000 members of the Order Sons of Italy in America asked Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to deny the actor dual citizenship because "he has damaged the image [of Italians] by constantly playing criminal roles that tarnish their reputation." In my own small way, I try to get to know Italians in Italy better to break down the cultural divide between them and us, Italians living in other parts of the world. Therefore, it is my duty to explain Italy's position. Here are the reasons I think Italians want to recognize De Niro:

    • Italians already feel De Niro is one of them. When Italians in Italy hear about successful entertainers whose names end in a vowel from John Travolta to Frank Sinatra they feel as though they can take some credit. The fact is that these achievers have Italian blood running through their veins (some more than others) and often have an affinity for the Motherland, which they discuss in many an interview. Interestingly enough, De Niro is predominantly Irish in ancestry but is more often referred to as Italian American, according to

      Robert De Niro's great grandparents left the small town of Ferrazzano in Molise at the turn of the century, but the town's mayor already gave the thumbs up to conferring honorary citizenship on De Niro (and filmmaker Martin Scorsese) at the Venice Film Festival in September. From an Italian point-of-view, this gesture is a way to show support for their brothers and sisters abroad. It is a way to make us all feel included and welcome in the country that our relatives (or we) left behind so many moons ago.

    • Italians want to laud De Niro's success. There is no question that Robert De Niro is an accomplished actor who made it in a business that is hard to break into. He won the Academy Award for his roles in The Godfather: Part II in 1974 and Raging Bull in 1980. He even learned how to speak the Sicilian dialect to play Vito Corleone in the second Godfather. How many people can say they know the Italian language, never mind one of the dialects? De Niro was also nominated for best actor for his roles in Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Cape Fear. He also heads his own production company Tribeca Film Center. A native New Yorker, he organized the first Tribeca Film Festival in May 2002 to give a boost to lower Manhattan after the September 11th attacks. And Entertainment Weekly named De Niro the 34th greatest movie star of all time.

      Italy has a wonderful tradition of art and entertainment, one that Italians take seriously. After all, this is the land of Fellini, Mastroianni and Loren. If and when the Italian cultural minister bestows citizenship on De Niro, he will be recognizing the actor's talent, his ability to bring a character to life. Perhaps, De Niro's real problem is that he's too good at his job, and we Italian Americans forget that characters like Vito Corleone are not real.

    • Italians draw a line between fiction and reality. In recent years, many Italian American activists have criticized or even protested actors who took on mafia roles. The fact is that these actors are portraying fictional characters. As an Italian American (from New Jersey no less), I can honestly say that shows like The Sopranos and films like The Godfather have not hurt my reputation. No one is suggesting that I am (or any of my relatives are) a criminal because Tony Soprano is on HBO on Sunday night. It's not real, people! It's a story - a well-written one at that - and so were The Godfather: Part II and a slew of De Niro movies - from Mean Streets to the upcoming Shark Tale.
    Perhaps, we are missing the big picture. Just last week the Italians received a threatening letter from an Al-Qaeda group because the country chose to keep its peacekeeping troupes in Iraq. That certainly seems weightier than whether to confer dual citizenship on some celebrity, no? This is a wake-up call: Let's shift our priorities and try to understand each other once and for all. This way, we won't sweat the small stuff when we clearly have bigger problems that unite us across all borders.

    Please let me know what you think. You can reach me at


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