Meet the Parents
Jeff Reichert on Italianamerican

“What do you say to a person after forty years?” asks a bespectacled, gray-haired woman who looks suspiciously like Martin Scorsese at the beginning of the 1974 medium-length nonfiction feature Italianamerican. She’s perched close to her husband on their floral, vinyl sitting-room couch, regal in a pink housedress, her hair a perfect purple-gray helmet. (At the film’s open they were at opposite ends of the sofa, until she badgered him into moving closer—“As you get older, they say your love grows stronger,” she jokes.) He sports a striped shirt with a belly-popped button suggesting an earlier, better fit and slacks working their way past his waist toward his armpits. Next to the two of them there’s an overly ornate lamp, and a large portrait hangs overhead. In the foreground, a large crystal object dominates a tin coffee table, and a little further back on that table, is that a porcelain sculpture of a . . . hydra?

Italianamerican takes place entirely in the gaudy, familiar-to-anyone-with-grandparents apartment of these two Italian-Americans, Catherine and Charles Scorsese, the mother and father of the director. The film, his second documentary after the 1970 Vietnam protest movie Street Scenes (which he organized and edited, rather than technically directed, and which because of controversy related to its auteurist provenance, has himself suppressed) acts as a kind of personal pre-history, in which his parents ramble through tales of the old country, citizenship in their new country, their thoughts on the Irish, the Chinese, the neighborhood, the apartment, winemaking, the art of the perfect meatball. Recently the director insisted, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” If a couple of boisterous personalities, comfortable in their mundanely eccentric home environment, being probed by a feisty interlocutor to range widely and at length in front of a stationary camera seems a familiar documentary format, remember that Italianamerican predates Gates of Heaven by four years, and think for a second on how, on the list of all the filmmakers influenced by Martin Scorsese, we might add, unexpectedly, Errol Morris.

It’s a crudely and yet shrewdly made work, in that way in which more economical, film-shot docs from the era couldn’t fully elide, and often seem to revel in, their technical roughness, be that the jostle of the camera, a drop in audio, a crash zoom, or a crew member wandering into the frame (think Blank, Leacock, Pennebaker). A bearded Scorsese is a commonplace onscreen, as a close-up cutaway placed to smooth over an edit in one of Charles’s stories, or seated at the dinner table, idly poking at a cucumber salad with a fork while examining his notes and listening to stories one imagines he knows by heart. There’s a sense that this scene has played out thousands of times throughout Scorsese’s life sans camera and that his parents, presented with their boy in his usual spot, have easily forgotten the presence of a crew. For all the film’s technical rough edges (it even opens with a bold FILM START HERE leader card, as does his later doc American Boy), such a scene feels like the result of careful design.

In the same 2013 interview in which Scorsese declared Italianamerican his best film, he explains: “It was then I realized that just one image of one person can tell a story. A world. They were better than actors, but they weren’t actors.” Catherine and Charles are truly a whole world, and certainly more compelling than many paid performers. (Catherine might be among the most well-rounded females to appear in a Scorsese film.) Even so, Scorsese can’t help but give his parents a little bit of an aesthetic lift. He incorporates archival footage of the Little Italy neighborhood in which he grew up, including shots of immigrants pouring down Manhattan streets. A revelatory handheld camera move that walks up the stairs of their tenement and onto the roof to view the neighborhood from above, momentarily rescues us from the claustrophobic apartment. Close-ups of dusty, faded family photos are accompanied by strummed tarantellas—Scorsese is here playing all the clichés about Italian-American culture to the hilt, yet never with the intent of minimizing his subjects’ experience.

Those who view Scorsese through a narrow auteurist lens—his pet obsessions with Italian identity, masculinity, Catholicism, and how violence can erupt at their nexus—can easily slot this small documentary into the narrative of his career. But the film’s stylistic flourishes and the focus of Scorsese’s questions on the move from the “old” to the “new” country speak to his grander theme, the one that’s become more apparent as his oeuvre has diversified, and is especially clear in the wake of his late-career epics Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Wolf of Wall Street: the tidal pull of history and how individuals are caught up in it, tossed around by it, and, ever so occasionally influence it themselves. Thus, a film about his parents—in which an entire sequence hinges on the director pressing his mother for tips on making great meatballs (add a little gravy so they don’t dry out)—becomes a meditation on the experiences of an entire wave of immigrants and the time and place they occupied in American history. It’s a small film with big aims—Scorsese only interviews two people, and clearly didn’t have to do a tremendous amount of searching to find them, but in its almost bratty simplicity it shows up so many contemporary nonfiction films, which often seem to exist only to document the exemplary or the culturally notable, and in their slavish obsession with their subjects’ import end up squelching the kind of resonance that Italianamerican casually exudes.

Near the film’s close, Catherine recounts the story of her mother’s death in the old country, which occurred not long after the drying up of her prized fig tree. As she finishes the tale, the frame freezes on her smiling, squinting face, the color drains, and the borders of the image itself shrink, surrounding the smiling woman with blackness. In a few seconds, Scorsese has used cinematic tricks to turn his mother from a documentary subject into an on-screen Polaroid captured for posterity. This reflective moment doesn’t last long: the film cuts and she tosses her napkin to the table before telling her son, “That’s enough for today, Marty.” The cameras keep rolling as she continues chatting. The final line goes to Catherine, addressing the camera, “Is he still taking this? You won’t make it outta this house alive.” In other Scorsese films, that would be a threat to be taken seriously.