There’s a great scene from HBO’s Emmy-nominated series “The Sopranos” where Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) proudly rattles off a series of names and facts about the many contributions of Italian-Americans to his disaffected teenage kids. There is more heartfelt emotion and sincerity packed into this brief soliloquy than there is in an hour and a half of this manufactured special.
It’s ironic really that a show about a Mafia don could upstage what is supposed to be a glowing tribute to Italian-Americans, a group that is unjustly burdened by the gangster stereotype. But exec producer Michael Stramiello’s special doesn’t so much delve into the Italian-American heritage as it does just skim the surface.
The special, designed to air during PBS Pledge Week, is broken into several segments covering everything from Amerigo Vespucci to Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra. A combination of misplaced interviews and droll narration by Ted Dalaku, the special is about as captivating as a driver’s ed film.
Part factual but mostly interpretive, we hear the play-by-play of Christopher Columbus’ quest to explore the New World as told by comedian Pat Cooper. When we learn about the Italian architectural influences on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol building, Robert Loggia, of all sources, offers “There’s tremendous soul in the Italian persona, and it wants to burst out and express itself.”
Director and writer Marino Amoruso does manage to cull a wide collection of archival footage and rare family movies, but they’re of Joe Paterno and Tommy Lasorda. And even then, there is randomness to their presentation.
A few interesting facts are disclosed: Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was heavily influenced by the writings of scholar Filippo Mazzei; more Italian-Americans fought in World War II than any other nationality; Henry Fonda, believe it or not, had Italian ancestors.
An interview with Geraldine Ferraro offer the most revealing personal accounts, and she speaks openly of her struggles against the stereotypes that have plagued her political career. Another highlight is a 1990 interview with Jimmy Stewart, who talks affectionately about director Frank Capra.
The brief tribute to Frank Sinatra, however, comes completely out of left field, and we learn nothing new here except that actor Jack Scalia prizes his autographed picture of Ol’ Blue Eyes over everything else.
Mostly the special is a roll call of famous Italian-American movie stars and features a particularly inocuous segment called “Did You Know,” which enlightens us with facts like “Did you know Talia Shire is the sister of Francis Ford Coppola?”
It’s obvious there is a wealth of history and information to be explored and Italian-Americans have a proud and diverse heritage that deserves tribute.
They just don’t get it here.