Film Review: Lygon St Si Parla Italiano

Lygon St Si Parla Italiano (2013)

dir: Shannon Swan

Shannon Swan's Lygon St Si Parla Italiano
Shannon Swan’s Lygon St Si Parla Italiano

Melbourne is a wonderful hotchpotch of people from countries all over the world. More so than any other however, it is the Italian community that have lovingly and admirably etched an iconic mark on the city. Lygon Street is the “Little Italy” of not only Melbourne, but of the entirety of Australia and is the subject of Shannon Swan’s enlightening documentary that both informs colourfully and pleases tastefully.

Beginning with the mass immigration of Italians after the Second World War, the film charts the ebb and flow of the street’s life and reputation right through to the modern day. Along with effective use of archival photography, grainy old film clips and classic newsreels, the history of this wondrous street is also brought to life through discussions between a circle of dedicated shop and restaurant owners. These charismatic characters, that have frequented the street both past and present, share stories over food and wine and are the true heroes of this charming documentary that any Melburnian will endorse and enjoy immensely.

The pioneers of Lygon Street’s legendary espresso houses, pizza restaurants and watering holes illuminate the screen with their stories of the good times and the bad. Often arguing with each other, teasing each other and winding each other up throughout the documentary, these folk are an invaluable asset to the film. As much as the pictures and newsreels of old can set the atmosphere of the bygone golden age of the street, it is the personal stories and anecdotes that have the most affect on the viewer. They constantly celebrate the events that evolved on Lygon Street throughout the last 60 years; the debate over who brought the first ever espresso machine to Australia is particularly amusing, and the insights into the life on the street during the Melbourne 1956 Olympics shows how important the street had become to those Italians who were a long way from their homeland.

Less talked about are the dark times. It has been widely claimed in the media that Lygon Street has been the heart of Melbourne’s Mafia scene. The so called “Black Prince of Lygon Street” Alphonse Gangitano is talked about only briefly, and many interviewed for the documentary, including the affable Mick Gatto, simply hang in silence when asked of any Mafia-style involvement. The popular television series Underbelly comes under much scrutiny, with Gatto himself saying ‘it is great entertainment, but it is not the whole truth.’ Wisely the filmmakers don’t dwell on the street’s notoriety. “It’s all just shit,” is the answer we are left with in the end.

What we do see in abundance however, is the overwhelming success of traditional Italian food on the street. As many Italians simply wanted to recreate what they missed about Italy, it is not surprising that restaurants offering pizza, pasta and home favourites sprung up all along the street. Included in the storytellers are the owners of L’Alba, Donati’s, University Cafe, and Toto’s Pizza House – the first pizza house ever to open in Australia in 1961. They talk about the huge queues when they opened, people who wanted food like their mamas used to make; they speak of the yearly Italian Fiesta on the street, the highlight being the “Greasy Pole” in which one of our storytellers had the responsibility to grease the pole the morning of the festival and watch as teams of five men tried to make their way to the top and claim the prized meat. Also relevant is the distinctive insight into the early development of theatre in Melbourne with the rise of La Mama and The Pram Factory.

Probable one of the most significant parts of the film is the rare footage into the aspects of racism that occurred early into the Italian migration. Many who were promised jobs and houses found themselves fresh off the boat with nowhere to go and no job to keep them busy. In fact, the government shipped most of these so-called “degenerates” to regional detention camps in Victoria. There is also a staggeringly racist Cinesound newsreel in which the report shows “dirty” Italians clambering off boats in the harbour as the news reader warns of the consequences in letting so many of Eastern European immigrants into to Australia instead of more pleasing “English, Nordic types.” The truth is that the Italian community have had a profound effect on Australian culture, playing an integral part in shaping the country in to what it is today. It is certainly without doubt that Australia would be considerably inferior without the eclectic Italian charm that has gripped cities such as Melbourne.

I actually went to the wonderful Cinema Nova picture house on Lygon Street to watch the film, and after the credits rolled I wandered up and down the street taking in the nostalgia and memories that had been expressed so elegantly in the film. I also wandered to Donati’s Fine Meats, and low and behold there he was, the famous butcher I had just watched talking about his life and times on the street. Much of the Italian flair has now been removed from Lygon Street but there is still something in the air that echoes the past. If the film represents one thing for the future it is this – the spirit and flavour of Lygon Street will never die.

Ben Haller, 2013

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