January 2004


Learning to Love the Mambo

by Michelle Alfano

Accenti CINEMA : Learning to Love the Mambo by Michelle Alfano
Scene from Mambo Italiano
The new Canadian film Mambo Italiano, from Montreal filmmaker Emile Gaudreault, is rife with the usual cliches about Italo-Canadian life but with a new twist that explores the theme, as expressed by the lead character, that "there is no fate worse than being gay and Italian." Luke Kirby plays the aptly named Angelo, the sweet, cherubic-looking but neurotic son of Italian immigrants Maria (Ginette Reno) and Gino Barberini (Paul Sorvino). Angelo, an aspiring writer and frustrated travel agent trapped in a mind-numbing job, comes out to his parents and his Little Italy neighbourhood in Montreal. The film is based on the very successful play from two years ago written by Steve Galluccio, who co-wrote the film script with Gaudreault.


The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002 and has been sold to over thirty countries. The play opened at the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe in Montreal, in French, in December 2000 and then in English. It also opened in Toronto to mixed reviews. One perhaps uncharitable Toronto reviewer described the first act as a "nightmare of screaming, shouting and unfunny gags." But Galluccio has clearly hit a nerve with this comedy, not unlike Nia Vardalos, the creator of My Big Fat Greek Wedding with whom he is inevitably compared. The play sold out in Montreal and led to a provincial tour and a movie deal.


The 42-year-old's present good fortune is not the proverbial overnight success story. Galluccio studied writing at Concordia University and had theatre pieces produced at Fringe festivals in the early 1990s. He has said that the idea for Mambo Italiano was inspired by a young woman's coming out story on Oprah. The Oprah guest had said that the comedic actress Ellen DeGeneres had inspired her to come out to her family, and she described how welcoming they had been, much to her surprise. Galluccio tried to imagine that same "coming out" in an Italian family. He couldn't - so he wrote the core of the story for the play.


Shot in a vivid, almost Technicolor-like scheme, the film is quickly paced, candy-bright and sweet in its presentation, perhaps intentionally emphasizing the cartoonish aspects of the story. Mambo Italiano features the expected histrionic, overbearing parents, the rococo living rooms and bathrooms, the big-haired women with enormous jewellery, the obsessive cooking, overfeeding and the inevitable tomato sauce bubbling on the stove and, more poignantly, the delayed adolescence of the two adult "children" Angelo and his sister Anna (Claudia Ferri) who are prohibited from leaving the nest until, they claim, they are "married or dead." There is a decidedly sitcom feeling to the film (likely largely due to Galluccio's television work), but it explores an important and hitherto taboo subject: homosexuality in the Italo-Canadian community and learning to accept "those people," as they are referred to by the Barberinis.


Mambo Italiano presents, in a comedic and entertaining manner, the prevailing sentiment that homosexuality cannot exist amongst us and, if it did, it would be a calamity that must be endured by the long-suffering parents. The previews of the movie, which inevitably are edited with concentration on those features that will sell to as wide a demographic as possible, emphasize the buffoonish consequences of Angelo's revelation but not the melancholy and genuine angst created by that decision: he is gay and wants to live openly with his reluctant lover Nino Paventi (Peter Miller), a handsome but closeted police officer.


It is Angelo's desire to escape the "prison of guilt and fear and lies" that his familial home has come to represent because he cannot truly be himself. There are real moments of tenderness and melancholy interspersed with the hysteria and over acting between family members. Maria and Gino genuinely convey the feelings of what I refer to as a "cult of suffering" that many immigrant parents experience. When the parents finally sit down quietly together (and, really, these moments are brief with all the over acting between these two) and reveal that they have failed, they express the melancholic lament of all Italian immigrants: "My family is everything to me and I have failed - look how my children have turned out! Nothing is what we expected it to be!" Because Italo-Canadian parents' lives and feelings are so closely linked with the fate of their children, every "failure" or deviation is acutely felt and suffered through - particularly an unmentionable, unexplored issue like homosexuality.


There is another equally poignant moment when Angelo, sitting on the balcony of his home with his parents, looks over at a neighbour - a middle aged, almost elderly man, sitting with his even more elderly parents on their balcony across the way. The look of horror on Angelo's face conveys the feeling both of a young life unfulfilled and a thwarted love. It's a bittersweet reminder that, as one character says, "living in desperation is an Italian tradition." Those who have gone against the grain of tradition in an old-fashioned family will recognize Angelo's feelings of claustrophobia.


After his disclosure, Angelo struggles with his choices. Does he want to be "alone like a dog" when his family refuses to see him and Nino - pressured by his Sicilian mother Lina (played implausibly and poorly by the genuinely gifted comedic actress Mary Walsh) - deserts him for a loveless engagement to the first girl that expresses an interest in him? Or does he want to partake in the "serene chaos" that his family has provided him during his young life?


Because this is a comedy, all ends well. Angelo will find true love with a man who is not ashamed of his sexuality; the parents will be reconciled to his choice and proudly parade through Little Italy with their son's partner; his neurotic sister will achieve a degree of emotional maturity and stability. Ah, if only life were as sweet as that!


Flawed as it is, Mambo Italiano is a pretty confection that may help to persuade the intolerant or cajole compassion on this issue. And, that's not a small thing.



Michelle Alfano is a freelance writer/editor in Toronto. She is currently working on a novel about the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano.



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