Mambo Italiano in Montreal. Theatrical Italianità in Émile Gaudreault’s Transnational Queer Comedy

“Because Nino is my lover. If only I could say that out loud. […] Every time I try to I freeze. […] Because being gay and Italian is a fate worse than ... Actually there is no fate worse than being gay and Italian.” (14:48–15:05)

This is the statement made by Angelo (Luc Kirby) regarding his ‘coming out’ as an Italian gay man in the comedy, Mambo Italiano, by the Canadian filmmaker Emile Gaudreault. Set in contemporary Little Italy in Montreal, the movie narrates the complications that emerge from Angelo’s secretive life style, as he still lives with his parents. Filmed in English by a Francophone director, the film was presented at a range of international film festivals and, in view of its auteur cinema and low-budget-character, an international success. The quote identifies the central criteria of identity, namely national origin and sexual orientation that are brought together in this queer, culture-clash comedy. Our contribution will analyze the film in the context of Italo-Canadian cinema, transatlantic queer cinema and trans-national comedy. These three points of reference point out Gaudreault’s negotiation of italianità in respect to generational and sexual differences. We will thus show that the film deconstructs homogeneous concepts of identity by exaggerating cultural and sexual clichés within a baroque and hybrid aesthetic, crossing sitcom, music comedy and theatre conventions.

Retro-Music: Italianità and Generation Gaps

The extra-diegetic opening music of Gaudreault’s film is a muscal mise-en-abyme: “Come è bella la vita quando mi fai l’amore. I dream of your kiss and drawn in your eyes. Spring is the time of the year quando sono sempre felice, walking hand in hand ti amo my love”, sings Adam J. Broughton. Italy meets America in this title song called “Montreal Italiano”, whereby the tarantella like melody and the voice are reminiscent of the ‘italianized’ popular music culture of the post-war era. By contrast, the title of the film quotes the Bob Merrill hit song “Mambo Italiano” from 1954, first interpreted by Rosemary Clooney, and, one year later, by the US-American of Abruzzese descent Dean Martin.[1] As in this song, the Italian characters of the movie are nostalgic about the rural Italy of their youth, so that Italy congeals with a nostalgic place of memory. In this sense, the opening sequence shows a visual correspondence through a theatrical staging of the Italian-American imaginary: In a slow pan shot to the first bars of “Montreal Italiano”, we see the Montreal skyline, doused in rather drab colors. But when the singing in Italian starts, the camera moves from a bird’s-eye view to a ‘colorful’ market identified by a mural as the Marché Jean Talon in the Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie quarter nearby the Saint-Laurent River. The viewers see vividly gesticulating people, embracing lovers, an immense church presented at an unusual, oblique, very close angle, and then a grocery store called Dante. Between both settings, a piece of lawn comes into view, clipped down to form the words “La petite Italie”, thus visualizing the milieu of the unfolding action. We are then led by the small and rotund, ordinarily dressed parents Gino (Paul Sorvino) and Maria Barberini (Ginette Reno), who emigrated in their youth from rural Southern Italy to Canada, during the front credits, all the way to their Italian-speaking allotment garden, where the neighbors, planting and reaping their vegetables, watch and greet them. Although the beginning of the film fixes the action clearly in the microcosmic everyday life of Montreal through the images, the mostly mute performance of the Barberini, accenting their theatrical facial expressions and body movements, already makes it clear that Little Italy is a place where Italy is more of a gesture. There isn’t really a strong interest from the characters in the fate of their birth region, their Italian neighbors or the city life of Montreal in general. These images provide an excellent example of an “imagined community” through their exaggerated staging. In the film, Montreal’s Italians are characterized by a superficial collective community in the sense of italianitià.

The last term, problematic, among others, because of its ideological positioning between Risorgimento, fascism and the more recent ‘Padania’ movements (Boaglio 2008: 16–34), represents here a collective cultural imaginary (Anderson 1996: 41–42), uniting memories, sentiments and fantasies of the protagonists, related to Italy. Italianitià thus refers to a nostalgic vision of the immediate post-war rural Southern Italy as well as to the Little Italy of Montreal, where the characters are trying hard to maintain the appearance of a friendly and collective identity by avoiding situations, which could lead to a physical and psychical proximity. Although the movie ends with a “redefinition of family relations” (Baldo 2014: 169), on the surface level, the nostalgic and immobile vision of italianità, symbolized by the hetero-normative-symbiotic family concept of the parents, remains dominant. It works as the hegemonical justification that becomes apparent in the cultural pattern of mammismo: the padrone-like father or celebrating Italian cuisine at the enforced common mealtimes of the Barberini family. Even if the protagonists are from rural Southern Italy, they identify themselves in the New World just as Italians. For the parents, the Canadian outside world remains the epitome of foreignness, presenting the cause for many an educational prohibition in the upbringing of their son and daughter. Frequent phrases uttered by the parents like “That’s not Italian” make it clear that their life in America follows the maxim to avoid or to ignore any events or contacts that might shake their identity. In their microcosm, represented by the frequent close-ups or medium-shots showing details of the interior of their house, it is a priority to achieve the outward ascertainment of a homely, petty-bourgeois happiness under the token of italianità. Always the same, topoi of the parents’ generation of italianità conjure up a culturally static and thus parodic picture in the movie – both literally and symbolically. But at the same time, as Michela Baldo (2014: 172–178) has shown, in many aspects these clichés of italianità are built upon empiric social rituals and psychological conflicts of Italians in Canada, who mostly come from a very Catholic and rural background.

This rigidity is evoked visually via the reduced spatial staging of the Barberini house, especially the over-decorated and kitsch dining room located in a stage-like niche of the ground floor. And it is also addressed as Gaudreault, time and time again, refers back to arrested flashes of consciousness in which the actors look straight into the camera, in the direction of the audience, thus interrupting the diegesis. A very impressive example is a scene during the very first minutes of the movie in which Angelo’s father describes his expectations of a culturally homogeneous America, when he moved from Italy to Canada. The head of the family Gino, a Forza Italia supporter, looks into the camera and clearly elaborates on how much he is longing for a space devoid of differences, Canada being a blank page, while we see behind him his wife ironing the laundry. Even after decades of living in Canada, the plurilingual everyday life and the political system seems to be for him and his wife a ‘strange world’. Reducing the cinematic space to a stage-like environment, Gaudreault shows that, for them, Montreal is an indeterminate place: “Nobody told us that there was a two Americas, the real one the United States and the fake one Canada. Then to make the matter even worse, there is two Canada. The real one Ontario, and the fake one Quebec. Eh.” (3:16–3:25)

Other than Italo-Canadian melodramatic movies like Jerry Ciccoritti’s Lives of the Saints (2004), based on Nino Ricci’s success novel of the same title from 1990 and featuring the Italian actresses Sophia Loren and Sabrina Ferilli, what is staged here is not the development of a conflict-rife history of immigration and integration of a whole family. The conflict in Mambo Italiano is focused (primarily) on love, just like the title song “Montreal Italiano”, only that love on the level of the film plot is gay love of the first generation born in Canada, the spark that kindles the central conflict of the movie.

The so far unsuccessful screenplay writer Angelo (Luc Kirby), the central character of the film, lives in a relationship with the policeman Nino Paventi (Peter Miller), a physically impressive school-friend whom he met again after long years by chance. He finally moved in with him, but that was a long time before he could tell his family about his true sexual identity. After the outing, both friends’ mothers panic and start searching for a wife for their sons in order to get them “back on the right track”, to “turn” them into real Italian men, as it were. But this outing, initiated by the increasingly passionate (gay) Angelo, leads to a separation with Nino leaving Angelo behind for the benefit of the francophone and blond Pina Lunetti (Sophie Lorain), the woman with whom he will found a family. But despite this cliché-like turning point, the two families are clearly marked by a generation gap. Whereas the widowed Lina Paventi (Mary Walsh) and the Barberini parents are sticking to ‘imported’ homogeneous concepts of Catholic family life and social ascent, the children, Anna (Claudia Ferri) and Angelo, as well as Nino, all in their 20s or 30s, represent an urban East-coast identity, at a first glance. Angelo, especially, practices publicly urban gay-life, prototypically shown in scenes where he is working at the call-center and volunteering at the gay-hotline, by performing his sarcastic and self-ironic talent through the phone calls and thus creates grotesque situations.

The generation gaps are presented in flashbacks, where we meet Angelo’s beloved and eccentric Aunt Yolanda (played by sitcom actress, Tara Nicodemo). She had wanted to lead a different lifestyle but was prevented from doing so by the family’s rigid moral values: She had to marry and ended up committing suicide in frustration. But she had wanted to become a movie star and loved to dance and teach Angelo the Mambo (04:14–04:31, 05:51–06:11). Following his self-evaluation, he has always been like her, an outsider within the Italian milieu (St. Pius X High School). Angelo shows neither trace of cultural difference in the sense of a Franco-Canadian pluriculturalisme, nor of italianità. Frustrated by the life in Little Italy and his law studies, which he pursued for some time in order to satisfy his parents, he works in the call-center of an airline and wants to move to the omosessuale village of Montreal and to become an Anglophone screenplay writer. His identity is linked to the trans-cultural title of the film, contrasting with the tarantella song of the starting scene and the rigid form of a traditional italianitià. The quotation, starting with an apparently nostalgic media reference, a common practice in transcultural films or novels remembering Italian migration from some distance (see Winkler 2013), is never depicted in the film, but obviously remains Angelo’s leitmotif: It describes a boy who is full of nostalgia for Southern Italy, however, this image is disrupted after the first lines through his tone, which reveals Angelo’s ironic character (“A boy went back to Napoli/Because he missed the scenery/The native dances and the charming songs/ But wait a minute something’s wrong”). “Mambo Italiano” paradoxically cites diverse (Southern) Italian regions by mixing up Italian clichés with (South) American topoi (“Hey mambo, no more mozzarella/Hey mambo, mambo Italiano/Try an enchilada with a fish baccalà.”). Accentuating the corporal dimension through its melody, the song thus symbolizes a hybrid identity in a transcultural and sexual sense, caricaturing the petty-bourgeois conventions which are far removed from the changing world of the metropolis around them.

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Bildnachweis: Mulberry Street (ca. 1900), Library of Congress (cc), https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8e/NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg/1200px-NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg