What can a film depiction of Ellis Island’s migration procedures in the early 1900s tell us about today’s representation of immigrants, as well as about practices of inclusion and exclusion? Do migration experiences change over time, even from/to the same two countries, and if so, what do they retain as similar elements at their core? On Jan. 29, 2019, Vincenzo Amato, an Italian actor (and sculptor) based in the U.S., entertained an engaging conversation about these issues with a lively audience of over 150 people in University Hall at Montclair State University. The event, organized and sponsored by the Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies in collaboration with the Italian Program, was included in a large lecture offered this semester (ITAL262 Italian Americans in Film) and was also opened to both the campus and off-campus community.
Amato, an enchanting storyteller, shared anecdotes and experiences linked to migrations, a theme that within the event played multiple functions: a topic involving a number of films Amato has been featured in, an aspect of his personal life, and a controversial issue in the current political debate in the U.S., Italy, and beyond.
Amato was the lead actor for the part of the poor father dreaming of America (Salvatore Mancuso) in Emanuele Crialese’s acclaimed film Golden Door/Nuovomondo (Silver Lion, Revelation Film, 2007 Venice Film Festival) about mass migration from Italy to the U.S at the turn of the last century. He was also the protagonist in Crialese’s first film, Once We Were Strangers, about an undocumented Italian immigrant in NYC in the late 1990s. He also played the father of Italian American runner Louis Zamparini in Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie in 2015. Amato works both in Italy and the U.S., but it is in Italy that he is offered a wider variety of roles, vis-à-vis those linked to specific ethnic themes in the U.S..
Screening of select clips from these movies prompted a rich exchange between students and the guest in the first part of the evening. Students had prepared several questions for Amato ranging from the genesis and development of the film to specific plot turns and characters’ traits. Amato recounted amusing stories about his serendipitous encounter with Crialese – whom he supported in the making of his first film as an NYU student to then realize Crialese made him into an actor, and a sought-after one over the years! – and his hilarious as well as illuminating anecdotes about spending time with shepherds and peasants to learn about Salvatore Mancuso’s environment, lifestyle, and dialect. These stories were among the students’ favorites. “As a film major” – commented Ryan Kennedy – “having the opportunity to attend such events serves as an invaluable resource for students to listen and learn from those who are currently working and have had success in the film industry.”
The audience, which included MSU alumni, also expressed interest in Amato’s decision to move to the U.S., and the actor offered a convincing description of how his migration was different from that of the Mancuso family in Golden Door, in terms of class and education, but ultimately certain fears and desires are not radically different for immigrants of different historical moments. The same goes for immigrants from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds: “The evening was meaningful to me because my grandmother’s grandparents came from Holland and had tremendous hardships when they came here” commented
After the event, Amato shared very positive feedback about the exchange with students and members of the community: “Q&A’s are often held after the screening of a film and are very targeted, while questions that evening moved in many different directions, and I enjoyed the variety.”
An article about Amato’s visit at Montclair State University as well as his career as film actor will be published by Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco in May in the New Jersey Monthly (more information coming soon).