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

Italo-Canadian Image in Cinema and Television

The construction of Mambo Italiano around a generation gap within two Italo-Canadian families in Montreal’s Little Italy, using common clichés about Italians and gays as the starting point of the story, reveals that the film is not an accidental or improvised production. Not only the “inoffensive and non-provocative” character of the storyline (Leeder 2006: 65), but also the fact that migration from Italy, especially the region of Molise, has led to important Italophone settings and cultural productions in Quebec shows the strategic character of the film project. Gaudreault chose not only a well-established milieu as a starting point but also creates a film which refers to the (Franco-) Canadian success genre per se, comedy,[2] by using the already successful Anglophone play by Steve Gallucio, bearing the same title as his movie, as the basis for the latter. Gallucio wrote the screenplay for the movie together with the director by making some changes, e.g. transforming Nino from an accountant to a police officer and changing the identity of Pina to a rich and foul-mouthed daughter of a constructor, whose enterprise she has taken over (see Leeder 2006).[3] Furthermore, Gaudreault uses a strong and prominent musical dramaturgy. Besides some original music by FM Le Sieur, such as as the “Mambo Mambo” melody or the “La fine del mondo” and the “Montreal Italiano” song (with the lyrics of Broughton, Jeanne Dompierre, Steve Galluccio), the film uses famous (Dean Martin) songs of the (post) war era, such as “Return to Me” (1958) for illustrating Angelo’s melancholia after the break up with Nino. Initially planning to engage Italophone actors, Gaudreault consequently employs mostly non-Italophone actors from an Anglophone background, as in the case of Angelo, played by the young Kirby from the National Theatre School of Canada, whose repertoire includes Shakespeare and mostly modern and Canadian works (Daniel Brooks, Michael Mackenzie Judith Thompson). Without doubt, an important strategic choice was made to cast the popular Anglophone Mary Walsh and Francophone Ginette Reno as Nino’s and Angelo’s mothers, respectively. Walsh is known from her appearance in Anglo-Canadian sitcoms on CBC and CBS television shows such as CODCO (1987–92) and Dooley Gardens (1999), but she also created a very successful weekly TV show for the same channel, This Hour Has 22 Minutes (1993–), which combines news, interviews and sketches and is still on air. The even more notable Ginette Reno is not only a popular comedian, but since the 1970s is also a commercially successful signer (in French and English), honored with various awards, among others with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, several Juno Awards and the Canadian Grammy in diverse categories, e.g. for the Best Selling Francophone Album. Produced by Telefilm Canada in cooperation with other companies, with a budget of about five million Canadian Dollars, Mambo Italiano was first released at the Cannes Film Festival, followed by the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (today: NewFest) in May and June of 2003, respectively.[4] It was promoted afterwards at a lot of other international film festivals and nominated for a range of Canadian awards (e.g. Prix Jutra, Genie Awards, Canadian Comedy Awards). On a commercial level, the film proved to be a success, especially in Canada and the U.S.[5] Due to this, Gaudreault and Gallucio adopted their concept of Italo-Candian comedy. Situated in Little Italy, for another cooperation as screenwriters, they produced the 13 episode sitcom Ciao Bella (Jean-François Asselin, Patrice Sauvé, 2014,), produced for Radio Canada/CBC Television, starring Peter Miller (Nino) as Elio Lanza and Claudia Ferri (Anna) as the main character Elena Battista.

This is all the more remarkable since Canadian cinema can look back on a rather long history of migration movies showing not only Francophone productions, but also many other language and film traditions. Canadian cinema is very heterogeneous, so that one can hardly find a label like that of the ‘New British Cinema’ (Heide/Kotte 2006: 181). One might perhaps go so far as to say that it is one of the specific characteristics of Canadian cinema, that it is “de facto multicultural in nature” (MacKenzie 1999), however without migration being broached as the central issue all the time. The Italo-Canadian cinema continues to hold a special status insofar as it has its own movie scene and movie festivals like the annual Toronto Italian Film Festival or the Italian-Contemporary Film Festival taking place in Montreal, Quebec, Toronto and Vaughan.[6] Especially Anglo-Canadian film makers with an Italian background, like Carlo Liconti, Vincenzo Natali, Jerry Ciccoritti and Derek Diorio are quite successful, but – apart from Liconti with films such as Vita da cane (2002), La Famiglia Buonanotte (1989) and Cuori in campo (1989, TV) – the instances they pick out their family background as the topic are few and far between (Diorio: The Kiss of Debt, 2002; Ciccoritti: Lives of the Saints,2004, TV).

The cinema and TV Quebecois has a strong proponent in filmmaker and actor Ricardo Trogi, who presented both TV mini-series (Smash, 2004) and movies (1981, 2009) of different format, which in part take up Italian issues and time and time again present Italophone actors. For the Francophone auteur cinema it is predominantly film maker Paul Tana who deserves mentioning, who since the 1990’s – e.g. in cooperation with Bruno Ramirez und Tony Nardi – has presented productions like La déroute (1998), La Sarrasine (1992) or Caffè Italia, Montréal. Beside him and Jean-Claude Lauzon’s international one-hit success Léolo (1992), already featuring Ginette Reno as the Italian mother of the title protagonist, it is in particular the presence of small productions like Italian language short films, which find their themes in Montreal’s or Toronto’s Little Italy, that exemplify the agility of this scene.[7] But Quebec, moreover, possesses a distinct Italian-speaking TV culture. The TV program Teledomenica, dating as far back as 1964 (on the air until 1994), was a popular Italophone TV program, followed by others.[8] Starting during the 1980’s, there have even been soaps that Italian authors are responsible for or that are situated in an Italian milieu,[9] among them some that took up homosexuality as a theme. A case in point is the 13-part gay TV series Le cœur découvert (Gilbert Lepage) by Radio Canada, produced in 2001 and broadcast in 2003, based on the novel by famous Quebecois author and director Michel Tremblay (Le Cœur découvert: roman d’amours, 1986). Tremblay, star author of the modern Quebec theatre by the way, was not only responsible for the screenplay of the series but also for the translation of the theater play Mambo Italiano into French (Küster 2007: 189).[10]  

Harmonizing Conflicts and Trans-National Comedy

When looking at Gaudreault’s movie through the backdrop of this Italo-Canadian movie and TV culture, the limits of a national classification become apparent. Although Mambo Italiano is situated in Montreal’s Little Italy, the director locates the action in an artificial microcosm, mainly indoors. He makes do with only a few and always the same city shots and, apart from that, works with locally non-identifiable ‘neutral’ exterior shots. Gaudreault’s genre references don’t relate much to Italo-Canadian cinema either – the actors are, with the exception of only a few supporting actors, all Anglais or Français de souche – but they do tell a lot about current tendencies in North American and European cinema because Mambo Italiano joins two trends in contemporary international cinema. It contributes to the gay and lesbian or queer cinema, as can be observed in the Canadian cinema, especially in the works by Léa Pool (e.g. Anne Trister, 1986 or Lost in Delirious, 2001, with Luke Kirby in a minor role; Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s/Maman est chez le coiffeur, 2008) or by the current shooting star Xavier Dolan (e.g. Heartbreakers/Les amours imaginaires, 2010; Tom at the Farm/Tom à la ferme, 2013) and some other internationally successful productions such as C.R.A.Z.Y. byJean-Marc Vallée (2005).[11] In most of these movies, gay or lesbian identities are no longer narrated as crises but rather as hetero-normative institutions (like school or the bourgeois family), or representation modes, like cinema genres, are put into question or the hetero-normative matrix is even suspended completely. In Mambo Italiano, the conflict about sexual orientation is quite typically sparked by the differentiation towards the familial expectations that come more and more to light under the heading of italianità. The petty-bourgeois italianità of Angelo’s family is parodied by Gaudreault within a genre that has been booming internationally for some years, that is the trans-cultural comedy, where cultural differences are often depicted as parody, but where they – according to the rules of the genre – definitely come to a positive ending. Cases in point are Anglo-Canadian productions like Gilles Walker’s 90 Days (1985) or Joel Zwick’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding(2002), the British Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002), the more recent German movie Almanya – Welcome to Germany/Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland (Yasemin Şamdereli, 2011) or the most successful French comedy Intouchables (Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano, 2011).

That means that this choice of genre modulates the ending of Mambo Italiano in a typical manner. The conflict of the plot, sparked by the generation differences through different gender concepts, is harmonized in the end: The melodramatic climax, where Angelo, after being left by his boyfriend Nino, distances himself from his parents by means of a powerful and violent discourse against the petty-bourgeois life in Little Italy, is finally followed by a happy ending. The invitation for Nino’s wedding symbolizes a turning point in the film, leading to a reunification of the Barberini family. This occasion not only incorporates all the pride of Lina, as an Italian mother, but it is also the only event which can cause a change in the fixed artificial world of Little Italy, where Lina and Maria are mourning the death of her husband and sister, respectively, at the cemetery as if they had died recently, not decades ago. Thus, Angelo’s parents have to find their reasons to be even prouder of their son and to reconcile with him before the wedding. The topos of the hetero-normative (holy) family is thus parodied further in the following sequences, but the image is never subverted. The reconciliation scene of the Barberini family (71:45–74:44), where Angelo’s mother takes a seat in the confessional, takes place in the same church as Nino’s wedding some minutes later. She wants to confess insignificant sins; but next to her isn’t the priest, rather her two children, who bribed the priest with wine and cigars. While the Sicilian-born Maria is shocked about this abuse of this holy place, their father joins the children and what follows turns into a declamatorily emotional reconciliation.[12] In this line, the tone of resolution and harmony dominate the further sequences of the film: In the end, when Angelo gets together with his new boyfriend, the gay-hotline activist Peter (Tim Post), the film restages the scene from the very beginning, when Maria and Gino walk with their shopping bags through the allotment garden of Little Italy. As usual, all the neighbors are watching them (80:11–80:45), only that this time, we see the unified Barberini family together with Peter walking in proud union. Mother Maria has her arms taken left and right by the two young men, and the voice-over soundtrack plays “I Will Survive”, the hit song written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris and first sung by Afro-American singer Gloria Gaynor in 1978. In other words, accompanied by the memorable gay hymn, the Barberini parents finally manage to follow a “pursuit of happiness” by considering the sexual difference of their son as the americanità, as something special within the Italian community.[13] At the end of the film, psychologically speaking, they represent “the capacity for recovery and growth” in a challenging situation (Baldo 2014: 176). In contrast to the past (the death of Aunt Yolanda), this time they overcome the melodramatic crisis by dealing with the emotional and cultural conflict between italianità and queerness in an integrative way (Baldo 2014: 176–178). But while the ending accentuates difference by image and music, the conflictual potentials of the plot are realigned for the benefit of the generic aesthetic of comedy.

Auteur Cinema: Transcending Little Italy

Beside these inter-medial references to theatre and TV, Gaudreault also moves beyond citing and exaggerating the “familiar family-couch-centered aesthetics of the traditional family sitcom” (Leeder 2006: 65) by a number of intra-medial references. They are presented in the sense of a “repetition with a critical difference, which marks difference rather than similarity” (Hutcheon 1985: 6). These references not only clarify the director’s orientation along the lines of the European-American auteur cinema, but they emphasize the theatrical quality of the setting even further. During the course of the development of the action, it becomes clearer and clearer that not only does Angelo feel that he is in the wrong place in Little Italy, just like his aunt had in her time, but that also the rest of the family has a hard time upholding the petty-bourgeois role under the token of italianità. This becomes particularly evident, after Angelo had moved out, in his sister Anna, who can’t stand living together with her parents, more and more. Anna rather turns into the image of a dark and beautiful, but garishly painted urban neurotic, who doesn’t find a husband, takes Valium pills, and changes her psychotherapist once a week so as not to give away too much of herself to any one person. The scenes of her with ever-changing therapists run through the film – the climax has her mimicking a therapy session with her brother in order to help him after the split up with Nino, both drinking from a bottle of red wine. They become not only a running gag, but they are, as the call-center and gay hotline-scenes with Angelo, also a structuring aspect of the film. Again, this element is a doubly effective parody: In trying to help her brother, Anna is clearly marked by the collective spirit of the film’s staging of Italian family, but at the same time she is also representative of a new generation, trying to solve individual problems by referring to assistive resources from outside of Little Italy. As her brother is unsuccessful in doing so in his character, Anna is clearly the most exaggerated character of Mambo Italiano, additionally representing the typical urban neurotic, originally created by Woody Allen and afterwards mainstreamed by various TV soaps (Sex and the City, 1998–2004, or Desperate Housewives, 2004–12). She is characterized as a heterosexual woman, whose ideal man would be someone like Nino: a good looking Italian man, tall and muscled, with dark eyes and hairs. She is shaped by the constant panic of engaging in emotional and corporal contact with other people, their psychotherapists, but also with her surroundings, illustrated in the scene where she discovers her brother with Nino naked in his bed, thus discovering his homosexuality and only calming down after taking some valium pills and running out of the house immediately thereafter (15:26–15:50).

At the same time, Anna is also a highly artificial figure: Her level of behavior as well as that of her appearance she is reminiscent of Pedro Almodóvar’s early cinema – she seems to be a woman ‘on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. Her garishness reminds the audience of the excessive and extravagant characters presented in Almodóvar’s films such as the mentioned Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, 1988) or The Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto, 1995). In this film, the diva-like neurotic female main characters Pepa (Carmen Maura) or Leo (Marisa Paredes) are assisted by Marisa and Rosa, played by Rossy de Palma respectively, two minor characters with a flashy eye and nose. The main characters are both beautiful, but they have been left by their lovers and for a great part of the films lead rather unhappy lives, abusively taking sleeping pills and drinking excessively. Not only Anna’s style, but also her wish to marry, contrasted by the fact that she is never in company of a man, creates some doubts about her sexual identity.

Just as the character delineation of Angelo’s sister does not fit within the framework of soap opera aesthetics, this also holds true for the aesthetical condensation of several interior scenes. A striking case in point is the scene in which both mothers give a dinner party in the Barberini house in order to find a wife for their sons. The living room, with its differently structured and flowery-patterned wallpaper and sofas held in green-brown-beige hues and the generally over-stuffed furnishing, sets the frame for the unification of all characters in one room. The space appears like a theatrical stage where the guests sit in one row, all excited and tense, only getting up when they speak.

Rounded doorframes allow a glimpse into adjacent rooms that seem like back stages and show similarly ornamental wallpaper and sofa covers, which do not fit together. If not before, then the rigid congregation turns into a operatic one when Nino’s melodramatic mother Lina appears, all dressed up with her lips and nails painted red, wearing a red top. While Angelo’s parents are sitting on the sofa, the other characters move around, seeming displaced in this interior setting by their aesthetics alone. The names (Nino, Gino, Lina, Pina), which only differ in one or two letters, add to the comic confusion. When Lina learns that her son had sex in his car with Pina Lunetti, like Angelo an ex-school-friend, she loudly cries “Yes!” four times and sits down, content and superior, as the wedding of her son seems to be the only thing which can rebound her from the death of her husband. In the Paventi family, the heterosexual matrix is saved, the movie, however, presents exactly this italianità pattern as a parody by the staging of the scene and the accent on the reduced and immobile social environment of the protagonists (38:20ff.)

The meeting of the Barberini and Paventi families is the climax of the film. It reveals the betrayal of Nino by the words of Pina, the only character who speaks some phrases in French, and shows Nino at the same time as a mammone, who hesitates to tell Angelo the truth and fulfills the expectations of his mother in the end. The presentation and statements of what is fictitious as well as the non-communication of the real family conditions are also staged in this climatic scene by means of a baroque aesthetics of exaggeration, a strongly artificial ambience in the form of a hybrid aesthetic.


Bildnachweis: Mulberry Street (ca. 1900), Library of Congress (cc),