Monday, January 14, 2008

Beyond Wiseguys: Italian Americans and the Movies

DON’T get her wrong: Rosanne De Luca Braun loves “The Godfather.” Ditto, “The Sopranos.” But she has devoted much of the last seven years to exploring why certain Italian-American stereotypes — especially the gun-toting, cannoli-loving mobster — loom so large on screen, and in the national psyche.

The result of her labors is the documentary “Beyond Wiseguys: Italian Americans and the Movies,” which will have its Long Island premiere on Jan. 20 at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington. Dominic Chianese, who played Uncle Junior in “The Sopranos” television series, is scheduled to make a guest appearance at the theater.

Running 57 minutes, “Beyond Wiseguys” interweaves celebrated movie and TV scenes with interviews with scholars and members of the film and TV industries. Among those appearing are the directors Martin Scorsese, David Chase and Spike Lee, the actor-director John Turturro (who was co-executive producer of the documentary with Ms. Braun), and, from the acting ranks, Marisa Tomei, Paul Sorvino, Ben Gazzara, Isabella Rossellini, Susan Sarandon and Mr. Chianese.

Some tell of having endured typecasting or of fighting ethnic clich├ęs. Yet Ms. Braun, 59, of Sicilian and Calabrian descent herself, says she is not merely beating a drum against intolerance. “I’m not anti mob movies,” she said recently over lunch in her condominium overlooking Long Island Sound in Northport. (She shares it with her husband, Edward Braun, the chairman of the technology-instrument company Veeco.)

“I don’t relate to the fact that these are ‘stereotypes,’ ” Ms. Braun said. “I relate to the characters. And in the case of a great work of art, I don’t view it as Italian-American — it’s American.”

Nevertheless, “Beyond Wiseguys” has its roots partly in community concern over negative screen images. In 2000, Ms. Braun, then director of marketing and development at the Cinema Arts Center, worked with its co-directors, Vic Skolnick, Charlotte Sky and Dylan Skolnick, to organize an Italian-American film festival devoid of “made” men, rubouts and the like.

Such films proved hard to find, though. The depiction of Italian-Americans as voluble, emotional and sometimes murderous had remained “largely formulaic,” Ms. Braun said, from the earliest days of the movie industry.

That was true, she said, even though “we found an endless supply of Italian-American craftsmen working behind the scenes in Hollywood from Day 1 — set designers, composers, writers, costume designers,” making their mark in often sophisticated ways.

Convinced she was “really onto something,” Ms. Braun left her job in 2000 to work on the idea. She sent her outline to Mr. Turturro.

In the film business, “I was nobody,” Ms. Braun explained. “I knew I was going to need a name attached to open some doors for me.”

Mr. Turturro soon signed on. The issue of ethnic sterotyping is something he deals with daily on a professional level, he said through an assistant.

It worked. “I could have said, ‘This is Daisy Duck,’ as long as I said, ‘John Turturro,’ ” said Ms. Braun, who rounded up interview subjects and, over time, raised “about $350,000.” (”Beyond Wiseguys” got its major financial backing from Italian-American sources, including LiDestri Foods of Rochester, a maker of pasta sauce and other products, and the National Italian American Foundation, but they had no editorial input, she said.)

When it came to making the film, two veteran documentary makers, Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher, collaborated with Ms. Braun, a neophyte.

Given the documentary’s many strands, Ms. Braun said she would most like viewers to take away the sense that Hollywood’s Italian-American sagas, at their best, transcend stereotype: “They’re filled with the aroma, and the real experiences, of Italian family life and Italian history,” she said.

Thanks to Karen Lipson

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