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  • The Ugly American Arrives on Italian Television
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Why do natives and Italians in other parts of the world still misunderstand each other?

    For ages in the United States, activists have been protesting the portrayal of Italian Americans as either pretty-boy airheads like Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back Kotter or mafia bosses like Tony in The Sopranos. The argument is that these fictional characters endorse stereotypes and take for granted the contributions Italian Americans have made in society. We're either a big joke or a big criminal and that leaves out the majority of Italian Americans who are neither, say the protestors. But just how do Italians in Italy see Italian Americans? You might be shocked and surprised to see the Italian American through native Italian eyes.

    Digital cable and the Internet have made the world smaller, which is especially useful for foreigners living in the States, who want to hear the news in their first tongue or even keep up with their favorite soap operas. That is why my family jumped at the chance to get 24 hours of RAI International in our home about two years ago. Finally, we could re-visit Nonno Libero (played by Lino Banfi) and his gang in Un Medico in Famiglia, a dramatic comedy to which we became addicted on one of our trips to Italy. And we did see "our show," every Saturday afternoon until the season finale, which seems to arrive far too quickly with all our favorites.

    But the series made a comeback as Un Nuovo Medico in Famiglia about two years later with a new doctor coming to live as a boarder with the family after Nonno Libero's son leaves his kids to take a job in Australia. This last season's "l'ultima puntata" aired just a few weeks ago on RAI International in the United States. This time around, Nonno Libero's housekeeper and friend Cettina gets a visit from her first love, Pippiniello, who had taken her virginity and then left her to strike it rich in the United States. Pippiniello, sporting a pinky ring and shiny suits, returns to Italy to find Cettina and lure her from her fiancée. He speaks the nearly incomprehensible Italian American dialect -- a mix of southern Italian dialects and English -- and throws his money around by giving Cettina expensive jewelry and gourmet food. By story's end, we discover that Pippiniello made his money as a mafioso and he ends up in jail. Cettina bids him farewell and, in a dramatic scene, lectures him for disappointing his sainted mother, who died without seeing her son again, and ruining his life in the name of greed. She says that America destroyed him, and he agrees.

    When Un Medico in Famiglia ended the first time, I needed a new show to entertain me, to give me that much needed fix. So, I turned to Vento di Ponente, which takes place in Genova and tells the story of two feuding families that own the city's top two shipyards. Of course, Francesca Ghiglione (Serena Autieri who hosted the San Remo festival this year) from family number one and Marco De Caro (Enrico Mutti who has appeared in American soaps) from family number two fall in love, and their forbidden desire for one another becomes every episode's central theme. For a brief period, Francesca's family, in an attempt to keep the two a part, led Marco to believe that Francesca and him were related, so he broke up with her. In the meantime, he impetuously married Catherine in an attempt to erase his impure thoughts about Francesca. Only after he weds does he find out that Francesca is not related to him, after all. Francesca dashes off to university in Boston to forget about Marco and meets Steve, an Italian American. Steve speaks Italian decently but with a horrible American accent. When Francesca's adopted father dies, Steve shows up to lend support. But the first time Francesca has to turn her attention to her alcoholic mother, Steve reprimands her for being a "typical Italian" who cannot cut mamma's apron strings. They part friends but he goes back to Boston and she stays with her family in Italy. She realizes that Steve was a good distraction, but he will never understand the importance of family as a real Italian would.

    Starring Napoletano singer Massimo Ranieri, Storia Di Guerra e Di Amicizia, a made-for-TV film about a Napoletano family's separation and struggle during World War II, was an excellent opportunity to dwell on the gap between Italians and Italian Americans. After all, we have all heard the stories of brothers fighting brothers and cousins fighting cousins as Italian American soldiers were forced to attack a place they once called home. The movie, which focused on the adventures of three young children, including one who played Ranieri's son, was more subtle in its political commentary. At one point, the kids shined the shoes of an American officer, who spoke Italian like a native. The kids were confused and asked how he learned the language. The soldier explained that everyone in "Brook-a-leen" spoke Italian.

    The actors briefly touched upon the hypocrisy of the U.S.'s racist segregation laws, an irony for a country fighting the Nazis for committing genocide. Then, at the end of the film, Ranieri's character dies a hero after trying to stave off Nazi soldiers. And the U.S. government has a ceremony, in which they posthumously reward Ranieri's character by giving his son a medal of honor. The American national anthem plays and the Old Glory hangs behind the son, his mom and the friends with whom he had shared his journey after bombs destroyed his home in Napoli. In this case, America was idealized and shown as the eternal friend, even the solution to the plight of southern Italians. But there is also the sense that Italy sometimes feels inferior to the United States. After all, Italy had to be saved by the red, white and blue. And then Italy was unable to keep its children -- especially those from the South -- from finding a better life in other countries -- Australia, Argentina, Canada, the United States. We just left our country, our home, and some of us never turned back.

    When these children of Italy fled, they unintentionally created a divide between themselves and those who stayed. Those Italians in the United States -- and other countries -- married non-Italians or married Italians but didn't want their kids to learn the language for fear of being labeled a fascist during World War II. Then, things just started slipping. They stopped having pasta on Sunday and started dreaming in English. They lost touch with their friends in Italy and their friends there lost touch with them. The points of reference that they once shared were no longer there. And that is why Italian television portrays the Italian American as a complete stranger -- one who is cold or greedy or criminal -- with no ties to the homeland and no understanding of being Italian. Italy feels abandoned and, perhaps, a little resentful that other nations were able to provide for its people. The secret that Italy does not yet know, however, is that some Italian Americans cannot quite let go of the homeland or its culture or its language. In fact, some of us still feel like more of a stranger in the United States -- or Australia, Canada, South America -- than we do back in the bosom of our Italy, the mother country. You heard Steve in Vento di Ponente; we are Italian and we can never give up our mamma!


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