Coppolas sell out Italian heritage
March 6, 2004
By Bill Dal Cerro
Brava to Sofia Coppola for winning an Academy Award for best original screenplay for ''Lost in Translation.'' As Americans who share her Italian heritage, we obviously feel a surge of ethnic pride. However, her triumph was only a matter of time, historically speaking. When you look at the amazing roster of Italic women throughout history -- leaders such as Empress Livia in Roman times, the intellectual genius Elena Cornaro during the Renaissance, or the late Ginetta Sagan, the driving force behind Amnesty International -- Coppola's achievement is part of a tradition of excellence stretching back some 3,000 years.
Indeed, of the three women ever nominated for an Academy Award as best director in movie history, two of them are of Italian heritage: Coppola and Lina Wertmuller. So much for the bimbo stereotype! Our gladness is touched by sadness, though, as we reflect on the legacy of Sofia's father, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, a man who made his mark by crafting one of the most cinematically successful exploitations of an American ethnic group since D.W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War epic, ''The Birth of A Nation.''
We're speaking, of course, of ''The Godfather,'' the fictional 1972 ''mobster piece'' that advanced the cause of American filmmaking but dragged Italian Americans back to the amoral, bloodthirsty image of our community first promoted by ''yellow journalists'' in the 1890s. Despite yeoman's work over the past 30 years by such distinguished professors as Dwight Smith (''The Mafia Mystique'') and Mark Haller (''The History of Organized Crime in the U.S.''), which methodically unravels the popular belief that Italians ''invented'' organized crime, Coppola's act of cultural vandalism continues to bear fruit in 2004.
Cable shows such as ''The Sopranos'' are promoted as cultural events. A recent PBS special on the remarkable Medici family of Florence labels them ''the Godfathers of the Renaissance.'' A new PlayStation video game, ''Mafia,'' invites teenagers to ''join the Family.'' An upcoming children's cartoon, ''Shark Tale,'' features crude caricatures of Italian-American ''killer sharks.'' And actor Joe Pesci, a veritable poster boy for mobster movies, is seen ''joking'' with young children in a new TV commercial that plays upon the Italians-as-gangsters image.
What is truly saddening, however, is that Papa Coppola's negative view of his own people may have been passed on to his talented daughter. Did it ever occur to Sofia, for example, that either one of the two lead characters in ''Lost in Translation'' (played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) could have had Italian last names? Think of it: two complex, intelligent Italian-American characters, full of delicate thoughts and poetic yearnings. But no, that wouldn't be consistent with the image of Italians that her father has so successfully implanted into the collective psyche of the moviegoing public.
As of late, Signor Coppola has been shouting ''Mea culpa'' regarding the cinematic sleight-of-hand in ''The Godfather.'' In the October 2003 issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine, for example, Coppola admits he knew nothing about Italian criminals, that he ''simply based their behavior on my uncles and cousins and other relatives, none of whom were criminals at all. . . . I just assumed that Italian criminals were just like average Italian families. . . . It was as if you were making a film about Jewish traditions but didn't know any Jewish traditions.'' Oy vey and Mamma Mia!
And, just before his death, the late Mario Puzo, who started the wholesale defamation of Italian culture with his best-selling book, also ''came clean'' with reporters and film critics. Quote Puzo: ''The term 'godfather' was never used by Italian criminals. Never. It was a term that I made up. I wanted to create a romantic myth, like the cowboy.''
Now that Sofia Coppola is well on her way, perhaps her spirit of independence will extend to the portrayal of her own people in future film projects. Of course, she isn't obligated to right her father's wrongs: As an artist, she can go her own way, if she so chooses. But then, filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg (''Schindler's List''), Spike Lee (''Malcolm X'') and Jim Sheridan (''In America'') didn't have to dignify their ethnic communities, either, and it didn't seem to hurt their careers much.
The Italian experience in America has been amazing, inspiring, funny, sad, happy, heartbreaking, exhilarating, poetic, enraging and ennobling -- but not, as Hollywood would have it, largely criminal. Let's hope that this experience -- and not her father's Napa Valley wine -- inspires some drunken possibilities within Sofia Coppola's imagination.
Bill Dal Cerro is Midwest spokesman for the Italic Institute of America.
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