- Heaven Touches Brooklyn in July
Italian Americans have developed a mythic narrative that chronicles their triumph over harrowing deprivation, economic exploitation, and ethnic discrimination, as well as their ascent into middle- and upper-middle-class success, troubled only by continued depictions of the mafia in cinema and television. This uncritical and linear account of self-resolve, family cohesion, and religious conviction ending in the boardrooms and suburbia of white America involves a significant amount of memory loss and obfuscation of the historical record. During the past twenty-five years, scholars and artists have begun to critique and dismantle "common-sense" histories and assumptions by exploring topics such as the larger global Italian diasporic experience, Italian American involvement in labor struggles and radical left politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their support of fascism during the 1920s and1930s, especially among ethnic elites, patriarchal violence and intergenerational conflict, and the privileges of whiteness in a racist society.
Despite such research, the ideology of this master narrative permeates Tony De Nonno's terribly flawed documentary Heaven Touches Brooklyn in July. This poorly scripted video is a form of ethnic boosterism, soaked in nostalgic yearnings for community. Riddled with factual errors, the video presents a continuous, unbroken link spanning a millennium and a half between the late Roman Empire and contemporary Brooklyn, a glorified folk tradition unencumbered by history. The Italian American experience is depicted as unaltered and timeless, and the specific Brooklyn community is portrayed as adhering to a centuries-old festival tradition without any significant changes.
The video's subject is the annual religious feast in honor of St. Paulinus of Nola (352-431) held in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one in a constellation of related celebrations historically staged in New York City and the surrounding area. The feast consists of approximately 125 able-bodied men known collectively as the paranza (crew) lifting and carrying a multistoried, tapering tower known as a giglio (lily) and a boat structure through neighborhood streets. The feast is said to be a reenactment of a sacred narrative recounting townspeople waving lilies to welcome home their manumitted bishop Paulinus. The feast has its roots in the town of Nola, located some fifteen miles from Naples, where men carry eight gigli and a boat. The one-hour video is divided into a series of episodes titled "The Paranza," "San Paolino di Nola," "The Master Builders," "The Artists," "The Capo Paranzas," "La Musica," "La Questua," "La Madonna," "The Women," and "The Children."
I should note as a disclaimer that the director telephoned me in the earlier stages of his project, hoping to contract me to provide contacts [End Page 459] and materials I had accumulated during my research of the feast. I declined, but did tell him about four historic films from Italy and Brooklyn dating from 1922 to 1956 that I had uncovered and deposited in the Smithsonian Institute's Human Studies Film Archives during the mid-1980s, which were ultimately used in the video.
The video is plagued by a series of inaccuracies that, although sometimes "minor," speak to the poor quality of the video's research. For example, Nola is referred to variously as a "village," a "town," and a "city" in the video. The original structure of the Brooklyn church that sponsors the feast was not demolished in the early 1950s as stated in the film, but around 1919; the second structure was destroyed in 1947. Antonio Barricelli was not a capo paranza (leader of the lifters), but the president of the Società di Mutuo Soccorso San Paolino di Nola, the original lay association that organized the feast.
The current state of giglio artistry in New York also is seriously misrepresented. Donato Mancini, a Detroit-born, studio-trained visual artist who was living in the neighborhood at the time of the filming and briefly contributed his skills to the creation of the tower's papier-mâché façade, is depicted as a long-standing community member and neighborhood "artisan." In the film narrative, De Nonno presents the artistic...