An Italian State of Mind


Italy is in my blood—between 10 and 25 percent of my blood, according to’s DNA test. My mother’s maternal grandparents were Italian. They are my daunting “brick wall” as genealogists like to call situations that are a mystery. I have their birth and death dates but are not sure where they grew up. We know that they moved around a lot before settling in the United States. My mom’s oldest aunt was born in Turkey; her oldest uncle was born in Egypt. I found a ship passenger list that put them in Brazil at some point. Somehow they ended up in small–town Curwensville, Pennsylvania.

I spoke with a local genealogist a few months ago, and she suggested that I track down these ancestors’ naturalization papers and death certificates, in the hope that their hometowns in Italy would be listed. I sent off checks to the county and state and waited. About a month later, in January, I received my original letter asking for the naturalization papers with a handwritten note reading “Records not found.”

A week or so ago, I received my great-grandfather’s death certificate. His hometown is not listed. Blast! But I was able to confirm his cause of death and the length of the illness (myocarditis, one month). My great-grandmother’s arrived a few days later. Again, no hometown listed. But it was interesting yet again to confirm her cause of death (arteriosclerosis, 10 years; cerebral hemorrhage, 2 years).

Couple this chain of events with watching two Italian movies, and I am raring to go on with my genealogy research!

A  few days ago, I watched Bicycle Thieves. I read an article recently in which the author wrote something along the lines of “Bicycle Thieves is one of the best movies ever made.”

Even though it won a special Oscar in 1950 (the foreign film category had not yet been created), I was a little skeptical that a film about a man and his son searching Rome for a stolen bicycle would be one of the best films ever made.

I haven’t seen every film ever made, but I would say it’s an amazing film. It’s classified as part of the “Italian neorealism” movement, which arose from the ashes of the aftermath of World War II. There was much poverty, devastation, and desperation in Italy during this time period. The film’s main character has been out of work for at least a year, and he finally gets a job that requires he travel by bicycle. When his bicycle is stolen his first day on the job, he and his son search high and low for it. I won’t give any more away, but suffice it to say that it’s a moving film with a heartbreaking ending.

Fast forward about 65 years to today. Well, a few days ago—when I watched The Grand Beauty, which won this year’s Oscar for best foreign film. Again, this movie doesn’t have much of a plot. The main character is a one-hit-wonder writer and a king of social life in Rome. He turns 65 and starts to see his life, and the people in it, as kind of exhausting and lacking much meaning. The dialogue is rapid-fire and, overall, the cinematography and imagery is jaw-droppingly beautiful. (Hence the film’s title.) We see the manic Roman nightlife; we see dream-like reminisces and mystical events occur. Days later, I am still thinking about some of the images.

I’ve almost completed the AFI’s top 100 movies list. I had the idea to start working my way through a particular actor’s entire body of work. I was going to start with Cary Grant, because I just watched Notorious and I. love. him.

After seeing these two Italian movies, I think it would be worth my while to embark on an educational foreign-film experience, starting with the top 10 best Italian films.

Oh, and another reason that my mind is in its current state: I’ve been reading I, Claudius. Aka the original soap opera. My head is spinning with all of the deceit, adultery, and executions going on. It’s going in the Netflix queue. Four discs…wish me luck!



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