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

Framing Difference: Theatricality and Television

Besides the appealing sound-track, there is another element keeping the parodistic episodes of the life of the Barberinis together. The plot of Mambo Italiano focuses not only Angelo as the main character, but it is also told through his eyes, especially the first 18 minutes, which narrate a condensed version of the family history from the emigration of Maria and Gino up to Angelo’s emancipation. They not only illustrate the autobiographical story told by Angelo’s voice-over, but also his phone call to a gay hotline, which he contacts after his involuntary separation. This is shown for the first time directly after the title credits and the Barberini parents’ walk through Little Italy (02:37ff.). In a cross-cutting, we see Angelo on the balcony calling the gay-hotline on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the gay-hotline volunteer Peter taking his call, before several memory scenes show key episodes of Angelo’s family life, which he is telling Peter (03:05–06:42). Scenes of the whole family in Angelo’s apartment and of the parents in their house are faded in, followed by sequences showing the family history in contrasting aesthetics: a black-and-white documentary scene with a ship and a railway thus recalling (Angelo’s parents’) transatlantic post-war migration to Canada, a photograph of Angelo and his sister from the 1980s and a short animated sequence of the Barberini house in a video game aesthetic, followed by theatrical kitsch scenes associating the family life with past decades and shots from Angelo’s childhood and youth, which he spent with his sister, Aunt Yolanda and his school-friend Nino. Simply through this condensation, the contrasting combination of audio and video and the often overcharged images, alienating and ‘freezing’ the characters, the history of the Barberini family is endowed with a highly ironic character. For Angelo’s nervous-hysteric phone call is identical to the voice-over commentary, thus holding together the diverging film material – the movie utilizes audio and video in the technique of non-literal speaking in a clearly contrapuntal manner, e.g. when Angelo ironically says, “Thank God for my exciting social life” and we see him sitting at his parents’ table with the family arguing (8:45ff.).

Staging the petty-bourgeois italianità, by means of the stylistic device of contrast as well as the overly theatrical acting of the characters and accentuating the ambivalence of hiding and exhibiting, is a leitmotiv in Mambo Italiano. In other words, Gaudreault clearly uses inter-medial procedures by referring to highly artificial and theatrical settings. When Angelo moves out from his parent’s house in Little Italy to the historic city center of Montreal, this takes place in melodramatic circumstances. In a scene shot before the house of the Barberini, Maria is crying melodramatically without stopping and Gino advises his son to go away without looking back, before he makes the same operatic gesture as his wife. The scene is underlined by the popular Neapolitan folk song O sole mio, the audio track describing a perfect sunny day with fresh air after a storm, contrasting its melody and lyrics with the melodramatic gestures of the stage-like scene.[14]

The theatrical character of Gaudreault’s staging is even more striking in the scene of Nino’s marriage with the beautiful, but slightly vulgar Pina, who has no other wish than to marry and to have children, situated in the enormous historicist church in Little Italy: During Angelo’s departure from home with his car, scenes are cut in from the marriage, e.g. the catalogue-like prototypical heterosexual couple, but also of Nino’s mother weeping and screaming with joy, or of the priest relating some embarrassing details from Nino’s childhood. As a viewer, one would expect a scandal – at the very latest when the priest asks whether anyone has any objections to the marriage, and we see Angelo waiting in his car, then getting out of it. But instead, it is in fact the late-comer Rosetta (Pierette Robitaille), a neighbor, who receives a nearly opera-like appearance that interrupts the marriage ceremony: She lets the door fall shut with a loud bang, excuses herself with grand gestures and a double “scusate”, and makes a big fuss when looking for her seat. It soon becomes apparent that Angelo has not dressed up for the marriage but rather for a visit to the gay hotline where he picks up Peter for a spontaneous rendezvous. In other words, the scene plays with the expectations of the audience by parodying a ‘typical Italian’ wedding with its overly opera-like acting and the contrapuntal montage. But it’s not only the petty-bourgeois Little Italy that is depicted as a parody, but also Angelo’s gay world. One of the cliché topoi that is referred to is his being different, his digression from any kind of italianità and his orientation along the lines of americanità. In this regard, his relation to his already named Aunt Yolanda, who was full of joie de vivre, serves as the oldest point of identification. Decades ago, she wanted to leave the rigid family model behind to become a movie star. Despite her tragic fate, even this story is grotesquely exaggerated via memory pictures from Angelo’s mind, showing him with his aunt in excessively ornate scenes in retro style – not only musically, but also pictorially.

The aesthetic of such scenes and their integration in the film not only reveals the static world of the characters, but also Gaudreault’s play with what Paul Grainge (2000: 28–30) called an “index of commodities” and an “Economy of pastness”, representing the “mood” of broad layers of society longing for an idealized past, but also choosing strategically an aesthetic “mode”. They create and cite, for example the fashion of retro-style, which has become popular in the American media industry of the 1990s and 2000s in order to satisfy specific market niches. The composition of the film with its episodic structure, popular music dramaturgy and artificial settings, contrasting image aesthetic, hard cuts and warm colors are reminiscent of the TV of the 1970s and 80s but also of American soaps and sitcoms (see Bignell 2010; Creeber 2008). More concretely, Mambo Italiano is in some respects similar to the “newer breed of sitcoms like Ally McBeal (Fox, 1997, Jace Alexander et al.) and Malcolm in the Middle (Fox, 2000, Todd Holland)”, for example on the level of room structure and styling, “the warm gloss of its colour and lighting schemes” (Leeder 2006: 65). In other words: At the macro-structure, Gaudreault stages his family melodrama in the style of a well-made contemporary US-American soap and parodies it at the same time, on the level of aesthetic as well as film plot: Just like in Bad Men (2007ff.) or the Sopranos (1999–2007), the (historicizing) scenery of the presented locales is moved into the foreground by the Barberini home and its 1970s and 80s furniture and wallpaper. After Yolanda’s early death, the only option of escape from the petty-bourgeois family life for little Angelo is the TV. There, he doesn’t identify with the Italo-Canadian channels but with the North-American mainstream. The boy spends his afternoons in front of the TV set and writes down the dialogs (6:38), among others from the successful US-American 1980s TV series Dynasty (1981–91), about the oil tycoon Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) and his clan. The show focuses on love and power intrigues in the South of the U.S. and, among others, the conflict of the conservative but a-moral Blake with his liberal, value-based, homosexual son Steven (Al Corley).

Thus, TV soaps have a major role in the film on more than one level.[15] Gaudreault not only parodies the simplicity of the dialogues from a soap sequel, he also creates a complex intermedial aesthetic: Nino and Pina are sitcom-like beautiful, but flat characters, mainly worried about a charming physical and stylish appearance. Whereas Nino is characterized as a mainstream, compatibly ideal son, policeman and future husband (hiding his identity of a bisexual), especially Pina is clearly staged in scenes, which are reminiscent of urban American sitcoms, for example when she is preparing herself for the wedding and sitting at the dressing table in a rose bra and a white bathrobe. Her fingers are entwined in her bouffant and blond curls, while we see beside and behind her four friends with teased hairs and identical dresses whose color is that of the wall-paper. The camera catches her from the perspective of the mirror, in which Pina is looking, and turns around the scenery. Whereas Gino, as the family patriarch, is reminiscent of James Gandolfini with his corporality and behavior, who played the main character Tony in the Sopranos, Angelo, at a more abstract level, is characterized as a cliché-like soft and extrovert gay figure, for example by the music accompanying him, apparently on his way to the wedding of his ex-boyfriend Nino but with the final destination of joining Peter from the gay-hotline in his office, which quotes the jingle from Sex and The City. More than that, TV is the domain that stimulates his career wish, while at the same time placing his difference on a new level: In contrast to all other characters, Angelo is more and more identified with the queer scene, pushing Nino towards his outing, which he finally conducts by himself after a few visits to the omosessuale village. The 1980s discourse of concernment serves as a symbol for this, paradigmatically depicted by the gay hotline, which, on the one hand, contrasts with the regular shots of his mother in the confessional and his sister on a psychotherapist’s couch, but, on the other hand, guarantees them anonymity, thus avoiding a ‘real’ and daily form of relationship.[16]

But beyond the motive of characterizing Angelo as gay, the hotline also constitutes an important part of the narration as Gaudreault introduces the element that frames the episodic narration of Mambo Italiano with Angelo’s call. Furthermore, it adds a new milieu and development of the action to the film: Angelo goes to the gay-hotline to get in touch with other people in crisis. Due to his nervous personality, he fails as a hotline volunteer, but he ends up falling in love with his supervisor Peter. With him, the technophile, artistic loner manages to finally overcome his melancholia and to get on TV, after all, as a successful author by writing a comedy about what he knows best: his family. A short scene focusing on an enforced common meal of two parents with a daughter and a son, an exaggerated version of those scenes that the spectator of the film knows already from the Barberini’s house, is introduced in the last seven minutes of the film. It brings together, in a very obvious way, those two media which aesthetically structure Gaudreault’s film, theatre and soap, as Angelo’s parents are sitting in the public audience of the TV-studio, laughing out loud about their own melodramatic attitude within their petty-bourgeois life. By dissolving the conflicts of the Barberini by repeating them on a studio stage in the form of a comedy in a more stylized turquois (retro-) aesthetic, this scene symbolizes thus the paradigmatic myse-en-abyme of Gaudreault’s comedian shaping of the melodramatic. This is also shown by the following TV interview of Angelo and his producer about the show, where Angelo mentions that his family experience had some impact on him while writing the script. With some sadness in his voice he remembers his Aunt Yolanda, the “coolest of my relatives”, who loved practicing the mambo, while the other family members stuck to their tarantella. By citing in this manner actress Tara Nicodemo, who had her first TV appearances in episodes of international sitcoms such as Tales from the Neverending Story or All Souls (both 2001–2002), as well as a line of the hit song “Mambo Italiano” (“Hey mambo, don’t wanna tarantella”), he calls his comedy not only a tribute to his aunt and his family, but also anticipates on the TV ‘stage’ the harmonic ending of the film under the token of a transcultural italianità.


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