If you really want to add authenticity to your Sunday serving of macaroni, meatballs and gravy, a trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx will yield as many homemade Italian shopping opportunities as it always has. On the other hand, finding the old Italian-American community among those businesses is more difficult, so Katonah filmmaker Dante Liberatore decided to document it in Abondanza before it disappears and the Bronx Tale is no more.
“There are no young people there,” Mr. Liberatore said. “It will all be gone in 10 years.”
Mr. Liberatore doesn’t see an exodus of the shop owners who live in Westchester, but the primary impetus for his 90-minute documentary doesn’t hinge on the changing face of the neighborhood.
“Any film that’s known that has an Italian theme is always mob, mob, mob,” he said, “so what I wanted to do was make a film that portrayed Italians in a different light.”
So while Mr. Liberatore couldn’t find in the old guard a better place to unearth the aura and culture of the Italian-American experience, it still required a learning curve in interviews to truly expose what he sought. With the film essentially going nowhere, initial interviews all centered on what a struggle life was and stories of coming to America for a better life. “That’s nothing new,” he said.
Documentary Film Begins to Take Shape
Instead, Mr. Liberatore intently cued up his ears by the fourth interview and waited for a word. In the case of Father Rapaglia, a squawk was all it took. “When he brought up pigeons, then I knew I had my hook,” he said. “That made him go off track.”
Thus, the father digressed into a humorous turn on how Italians scatter like pigeons when it comes to really practicing religion. “So everyone has to be a character and demonstrate that character – otherwise the scene is not going to work,” said the Yonkers-raised filmmaker.
The father’s acceptance of the changing times then develops its own momentum through his sense of humor. “He missed his true calling in life - he should have been a standup comic,” says Mr. Liberatore of the Mount Carmel Church transplant of the past five years.
In contrast, Ralph Squillante filled his cinematic role effortlessly as the street smart septuagenarian who lived his younger days in amiable defiance of the voice Father Rapaglia represents in the ever-present Catholic Church. “Ralph has every vice in the book,” Mr. Liberatore joked, and people in the neighborhood almost consider him a legend, while knowing he’s the guy to go if ever in a jam, adds the filmmaker.
But the former New York City cop kept his human frailties – drinking, smoking, and gambling – confined to the limits of the law (while certainly making great celluloid copy for the film). “He’s still a very decent man,” Mr. Liberatore said of the lifelong resident who walked his beat right on Arthur Avenue and served as social director for several nearby police precincts.
Author Avenue Sage
Serving as a middle ground among the triumvirate of main voices, was Paolo Palumbo. “Living to criticize,” says Mr. Liberatore, Palumbo isn’t shy in his self-appointment as the wise old sage who opines on everything Arthur Avenue and Italian culture.
The fact that Palumbo has a doctorate in Italian Literature and taught at Fordham University for over 40 years gives him a global range, while owning Palumbo Bakery on the avenue for even longer years also makes him an authority to muse locally. “I have another hour of him saying great things, but it would have thrown off the balance of the film,” Mr. Liberatore said.
In turn, the trio of Bronx tales had to be weaved into one main story line and encompass all the left turns into the area businesses, organizations and minor characters. “It was a very challenging edit,” Mr. Liberatore said.
Documentary Film Follows Italians Content with Change
Difficulty could also apply for some of the longtime Arthur Avenue mainstays who see their neighborhood going the way of a heavy Hispanic and Filipino influence. But Mr. Liberatore was not interested in highlighting Italians mired in agita over it. “As soon as I came across that, I just walked away,” he said. “The film is about Italians who are not malcontents because of their drastically changing neighborhood. They are just enjoying what’s left.”
Mr. Liberatore was certainly on the receiving end when it came to an aspect of being Italian that will endure like all the leftovers in every Italian’s refrigerator. “Every place that I went put out a spread – everything from linguini and cannolis to fresh baked bread and cookies,” he said.
But Mr. Liberatore doesn’t see an electronic trail of the latter as an abundant enough source from his Vimeo platform. “The problem with video on demand is it’s so easy to get lost in the sauce,” he said. “Even my grandmother has a VOD service.”
Otherwise, Mr. Liberatore hopes Abondanza can really make gravy by getting a showing in a theater like Jacob Burns.“If it has some kind of platform, I think word of mouth will project the movie onto a level that a lot of movies don’t get,” he said.
From there, the film says come and get it in abundance.
Dante can be be reached at [email protected]