A new film looks at the colourful history of the Carlton street and its origins as the birthplace of Italian-Australian culture.
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21 Nov 2013 - 12:13 PM  UPDATED 21 Nov 2013 - 12:13 PM

Carlton is the home of Melbourne's Little Italy and Lygon Street is its epicentre. For the locals and even for non-Victorians (like this writer), Carlton, only minutes from the CBD and once marked for destruction and re-development, is now famous for its coffee, food, and style. There was a time, not so long ago, a Carlton local of a certain age will tell you, when Italian was its first language.

It was a labour of love

In the lengthy saga that is Australia migration, Lygon Street's restaurant precinct and retail strip – really only a few blocks – is an essential part of that history. At least, that's the argument advanced in a new feature length documentary.

Lygon St – Si parla Italiano
, narrated by Anthony La Paglia with a big grin in his voice, is stylish, witty, full of fascinating factoids and gripping historical detail. Like a good sauce, it's rich and complex; here is the story of the impact of Euro cuisine on Australian palettes (and business). But it's also a tale of Melbourne (and Australian) urban life of the last 50 years; it's a story of hardship and intolerance, stoic entrepreneurs, tin-shed migrant dorms, back-room card games, police harassment and Australia's first espresso machine.

Part group memoir, part celebration, and part virtual walking tour, Lygon St Si parla Italiano uses animation, a gallery of talking heads and some truly remarkable archival material (much of it from private collections and unseen till now) to tell its story of post-World War II Italian migration to Australia and its impact on the country's cultural life.

Co-directed by Shannon Swan and Angelo Pricolo, who also share producing credits with the film's cinematographer Jason McFayden, the documentary was self-funded and took three years to complete. The filmmakers are distributing it themselves, too. “It was a labour of love,” Swan told SBS, and its origins lay in the universal tradition of telling stories of home and place while sharing a meal.

Soon after their first collaboration, Fighting the Dragon with Luck (2009), a documentary about heroin addiction, Swan and Pricolo were searching for a new subject. Pricolo is the son of Francesco Pricolo, something of a Lygon Street identity, who established a coffee shop on the strip in its pioneer days of the early '60s. One weekend, Pricolo's folks invited Swan to lunch (“and that was a big deal – when mum cooks you know you've made it in my family,” Pricolo says). There, Swan heard the 'origin' stories of Lygon Street as Pricolo Snr. spun yarns with an old mate.

“I think Shannon wanted to somehow recreate what he saw and heard and felt that afternoon,” explains Pricolo.

The centerpiece of Lygon St – Si parla Italiano – indeed its unquestionable highlight – is a round-table conversation with eight carefully selected Lygon Street identities, all of them aged over 70 (and tellingly all male), and all important in the growth and history of the precinct, from its beginnings as an Italian enclave in the 1950s to its '70s heyday.

Amongst this garrulous group, who spend a lot of time talking over each other and pointing, are: Giancarlo Giusti, founder of Grinders Coffee; the late Ralph Bernadi, Melbourne's first Italian Lord Mayor; Ubaldo Larobina of the Il Globo, Australia's first Italian newspaper; Mario Maccione, who took over the legendary University Café; and Mario Maccione, whose L'alba café hosted one of Melbourne's best (and richest and illegal) card games.

Then there's the late Salvatore Della Bruna, who established the country's first pizza parlour and invented the 'Aussie pizza' (that's the one with pineapple, a creation that he says here would have incited his father, a pizza maker, to kill him!)

The casting for the round-table was crucial, says Swan. Its careful planning and discrete negotiation took six months. He found himself amidst intricate gender and social hierarchies that he was anxious not to upset. “Getting the chemistry right was the thing,” he says. “You couldn't put anyone on there who was too powerful [a personality or in the community] or too meek. We thought of putting Mick Gatto at the table for the day, but no one would have talked.” (For the uninitiated, Gatto, in his late 50s, is an Italian-Australian businessman and Carlton identity made notorious for his alleged links to organised crime.)

The sequence, shot in May 2010 on three of the Red Digital cameras at Carlton's Trades Hall in a room dressed like an upscale Lygon street restaurant, cost, Swan says, $40,000. “The rest of the film – shot on the 7D camera – was done for nothing.” The round-table was intended to be the basis of the film's narrative. Swan and co. had a script and a plan. The 'guests' were given food, coffee and wine and made to feel comfortable. “We needed about 15 minutes of usable material,” he says, but pretty much from the moment he rolled cameras he couldn't shut them up. “It was like directing a wild horse that's run off and you end up hanging on for dear life.”

Since the late '90s, the neighbourhood has had a hammering. Dark tales of crime and corruption, talk of a 'Carlton Crew' of gangsters, has wounded its reputation; it's an accusation that has hurt the people who live and work there, says Swan. Pricolo and Swan wait till the end of the movie to deal with the issue of the Mafia and then only devote a small fraction of screen time to the subject. The film has been accused of being evasive and superficial on this part of its history, criticisms Pricolo feels are misplaced: “We pose the question [about the role of the Mafia, if any] in the community and we're absolutely candid about the fact that in its history, cops were paid off so they could let the illegal gambling in back-rooms to continue.”

As for the subjects themselves, including Gatto, interviewed here, they won't accept any talk of Mafia involvement, or indeed are prepared to testify to its existence.

“When we shot the round-table, the guys wanted to talk about the Mafia straight away,” says Swan. “They had something to get off their chest, tell their side of the story.” As the film so artfully portrays, the neighbourhood once made the news for its innovations and its legacy as a thriving model of migrant success but as Swan explains: “That image has been swallowed by a criminal stereotype and they wanted to say, 'There's no need to be suspicious of us.'”

Carlton was the home for European Jews before the first wave post-World War II Italian migrants arrived there in the early '50s. But the history of this transition – from the Jewish point of view – is dismissed in a single line of narration. Which has led to the filmmakers being accused of insensitivity. Pricolo defends their choices: “The story of [Jewish Carlton] is another film in itself.”

Swan doesn't make any apologies either for its relentlessly bright tone, or the anecdotal style. But then the spectre of racism haunts the story and the pain of isolation is a constant presence. “We didn't try to make the definitive historical piece – we just tried to capture the emotion [of the migrant experience],” says Pricolo.

Today, Swan says, Lygon Street is undergoing a renaissance. After a slump in the last 15 years, “where it became a caricature of itself,” a new wave of young Italian migrants, post GFC 'refugees', have given it a sense of “vitality and authenticity”.

The film, say its makers, is a rejoinder to the myths and fears about the Australian migrant experience. That's a story common to all arrivals, says Pricolo, and any political subtext is entirely intentional. “It's an immigration story with a happy ending,” he says.

Lygon St – Si parla Italiano is in limited released in cinemas from November 14.