An unprecedented number of participants—students, faculty and community—packed Cohen Lounge on the evening of January 24th for the Coccia Institute’s screening of Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread), a compelling, provocative and thoughtful treatment of some important, but lesser known, aspects of the Italian American immigration experience.
Gianfranco Norelli and Dr. Suma Kurien, co-writers and producers of this extraordinary documentary rich in archival footage, much of which was filmed in New Jersey, were on hand to introduce and provide background on the development of this ambitious project.
The 2009 feature-length documentary is subtitled “The Italian American journey from despised immigrants to honored citizens.” It has been called the first comprehensive depiction on film of the Italian American experience. The film tracks the social, economic and political transformation of Italians, from immigrant victims of violence and prejudice to prominent members of American society. This story is told by weaving together accounts from members of the community, comments by noted scholars and a treasure trove of historical footage and photographs.
Upfront in the energized audience were the 20 students enrolled in “The Italian American Experience,” a component of our Italian Program, taught by Dr. Teresa Fiore, newly arrived Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra Endowed Chair for Italian and Italian American Studies. On this, her ‘first day of school’ at Montclair State University, Dr. Fiore introduced the filmmakers, provided context for the documentary, and facilitated the lively and provocative Q&A session that followed the screening.
“As a comprehensive well-documented work that provides a critical look at roughly a century’s worth of the struggles, successes, tensions, and visions characterizing the Italian American experience, Pane Amaro with its nine theme-based episodes is an excellent educational tool,” said Dr. Fiore. “Thanks to an effective synergy with the Coccia Institute, I was able to show the film in its entirety on the first day of a class on Italian American culture, which turned out to be an ideal way to introduce the topic to students eager to learn about the richness of this subject. Now, no weekly meeting goes by in my class without a reference to Pane Amaro, whether it is a quote from the revealing interview with a history scholar on the Wall Street bombing, or the informative portrait of Fiorello LaGuardia, or the tragic family stories behind the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire.”
During the refreshments, members of the community shared episodes from their families’ personal histories, reflecting on emotional and sometimes heartbreaking experiences elicited by Norelli’s Pane Amaro. The enthusiastic feedback from the event validated its importance for the academic and broader communities in attendance. All in all, the documentary Pane Amaro was an ideal vehicle to mark Dr. Fiore’s debut as the Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra Endowed Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies.
“Even the lively debate prompted by the screening among the participants and the insights offered that night by the co-writers of the documentary have become food for discussion as we debate the implications of the Sacco and Vanzetti case or the question of language use among Italian Americans,” adds Dr. Fiore. “I recently found out that after the Coccia Institute event, students have organized home screenings of the DVD in order to continue this interesting conversation with friends and family members. Now we all look forward to Norelli and Kurien’s new documentary on Italians in California!”