A number of key Italian immigrants were responsible for changing the culture and landscape of Lygon Street, in post-war Melbourne. Now in their '70s and '80s, these important players come together for an afternoon of discussion and celebration over lunch.
At a time when immigration is a hot-button topic in Australia and unfounded hysteria over what vague disasters could befall us is readily available, the documentary Lygon Street – Si parla Italiano is a reminder that there was a time when this country threw itself open to new arrivals. In the immigration boom post-World War II that transformed Australia, one in six new arrivals were Italian, and their impact is entertainingly measured in Angelo Pricolo and Shannon Swan’s film about cultural change.
The filmmakers are affectionate but unobtrusive
Lygon Street in Carlton, just north of Melbourne’s rigidly gridded city centre, is just one thoroughfare, but it’s come to stand for the entirety of the Italian-Australian experience; narrator Anthony LaPaglia worked on the film because he instantly recognised his parents’ generation from Adelaide in this story. Formerly a rundown Jewish shopping strip, Lygon Street soon began to change once the overwhelmingly male first wave of Italian immigrants got out of the regional detention centres such as Bonegilla that greeted them upon arriving in Australia.
Literally picking out individual shopfronts and putting together the colleagues and rivals who are now in their twilight years, the movie measures the pace of change created by entrepreneurial spirit and cultural deficiency. The Australia of the early 1950s was a conservative, unadventurous society – when the first coffee machine was sent to Lygon Street from Italy it was held onto by suspicious customs officers because they couldn’t figure out what it was.
A raucous long lunch/group interview with the veteran café, delicatessen and restaurant owners is the fulcrum of the story, with the participants still bemused by the circumstances they found and the attitudes they had to overcome. Racism against Mediterranean immigrants was common, hence the tightly clustered new community in Carlton. What they didn’t expect was what they would attract: nearby Melbourne University provided academics, while crucial alternative culture, such as the seminal La Mama theatre company, soon took up residence. It’s amazing what good pasta can lead to.
The filmmakers are affectionate but unobtrusive, and they gently probe the locale’s connections to organised crime, which flared up with 'colourful characters" such as Alphonse Gangitano in the 1990s, whose exploits and subsequent murder would help launch the Underbelly franchise. 'The mafia’s all in the movies," asserts long-time Lygon Street devotee Mick Gatto, who killed an assassin in the back room of a restaurant near Lygon Street in 2004, and a long-time illegal casino established above a restaurant is treated as part of the community (it was shut down by police the day Melbourne’s first legal casino opened).
The latter years, where businesses became small empires and a degree of tradition set in, aren’t queried in details, but Lygon Street – Si parla Italiano remains a valuable piece of social history. It’s playing on Lygon Street (at Carlton’s Cinema Nova) just as a new generation of Italian immigrants, leaving behind a problematic economy, relocate here and hopefully the film will inspire subsequent waves of arrivals, from the Vietnamese to the East African communities, to tell their stories.