Italian American films are renowned for iconic quotes and images, from Don Corleone’s "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse" in "The Godfather" to Rocky Balboa's epic dash up the 77 stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in "Rocky."
These and other classic films and the far-reaching impact Italian Americans have had on cinema and culture are all examined in an original documentary exhibit written and co-curated by San Francisco State University Professor of Cinema Joseph McBride. "Italian American Cinema: From Capra to the Coppolas" opened Sept. 18 at the Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco and will run through March 6, 2016.
The exhibit explores the numerous contributions of major Italian American filmmakers and actors and features documentary panels, photographs, memorabilia and video installations. An entire room of the exhibit is dedicated to the Coppola family and their extraordinary influence on films, music and other aspects of our culture.
"Francis Ford Coppola, now the paterfamilias, has long been centered in the Bay Area and is a linchpin of the exhibit," McBride said. "Francis's older brother, who he has always said was his greatest influence and role model, was the late August Coppola."
August Coppola, dean of SF State's College of Creative Arts from 1984 to 1992, was the driving force behind SF State's Fine Arts Building, which opened in 1993. "His role as an educator is an inspirational part of the family saga. We pay tribute to him as well as to his many other talented relatives," said McBride.
The exhibit also explores longstanding themes in Italian American film -- such as family, community, immigration and assimilation -- that have helped define the ethnic group's crucial role in American culture.
According to McBride, American films such as "Rocky," "The Godfather" trilogy, "Marty," "Moonstruck" and "Goodfellas" have played a major role in shaping perceptions, and sometimes misperceptions, of Italian American identity, nationally and internationally.
"Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Italian American experience as it is depicted on screen is the way Italian Americans are often portrayed as members of organized crime. No ethnic group in America has a monopoly on crime, of course, but there has long been a disproportionate emphasis on Italian Americans in that area in films and on television. It's an ethnic stereotype that has been highly damaging," he said.
At the same time, he said, some filmmakers have explored that subject with power and sensitivity, despite stirring controversy.
"'The Godfather Part II' is widely regarded as one of the handful of greatest American films," McBride said. "It deals with a crime family but uses that subject matter to explore issues of family life, community, immigration, assimilation, discrimination, politics and other profoundly American topics that affect us all."
Other notable filmmakers featured in the exhibit include Frank Capra, Vincente Minelli, Ida Lupino, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Penny Marshall, Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola. Featured actors include Rudolph Valentino, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Anne Bancroft, Liza Minnelli, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti and Leonardo DiCaprio. Influential figures in the entertainment industry, from banker and film company executive A. H. "Doc" Giannini to "Godfather" novelist and screenwriter Mario Puzo, are featured as well.
McBride, an acclaimed film scholar and author of 17 books, has been teaching at SF State since 2002. Museo Italo Americano Curator Mary Serventi Steiner invited him to serve as writer and co-curator of the exhibit. McBride’s understanding of Italian American culture runs deep -- he spent seven-and-a-half years conducting research for his biography "Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success." The book was published in 1992 and updated in 2000.
Two SF State School of Cinema alumni were also involved in the exhibit. Silvia Turchin, who earned her MFA in cinema at SF State, edited a video surveying the history of Italian American filmmaking and a video slideshow about the Coppola family. Katherine Colridge-Rodriguez, who earned her undergraduate degree in cinema at SF State, is now in the MFA program and served as assistant editor.
McBride said conducting the research and reviewing the works and contributions of the directors and actors featured in the exhibit "has been a treat and a pleasure throughout. Watching their films and studying their lives and careers has been inspirational."
Museo Italo Americano will feature the exhibit through March 6, 2016, at the Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building C in San Francisco.
For more information visit www.sfmuseo.org.