Director: Shannon Swan, Angelo Pricolo
Writer: Shannon Swan
Australian release date: Thursday, 6 March
Verdict: An enormously entertaining and eye-opening documentary that contrasts an Australia of not so long ago with today’s very different country.
This enthralling documentary traces the remarkable history of Lygon Street, Carlton, Melbourne’s famous – and infamous – Italian food and café strip, taking in its beginnings accommodating post-WW2 Italian migrants in cheap boarding houses, its emergence as a food and coffee epicentre that profoundly influenced the local and national cuisine, its changing demographic and eventual gentrification, and an array of other tasty titbits en route.
The filmmakers have settled on a straightforward, conventional structure, showcasing the fascinating content without risk of distraction. With Anthony LaPaglia as narrator, the history unfolds in chronological sequence, combining photographs, archival and current-day footage, and interviews with Lygon Street regulars and notables including storekeepers, café-owners and restaurateurs (in some cases on the original sites of their still thriving businesses).
Among a diverse selection of other interviewees is Graeme Blundell, who was one of the movers in the influential Carlton La Mama theatre movement in the 60s and 70s that attracted a bohemian and university crowd to the area, Joe Dolce (“Shaddup Your Face”), and a token “colourful personality” in the person of Snr Mick Gatto.
Most gripping, funny and illuminating, though, are the recollections and anecdotes of a group of now elderly men who were part of the earliest Italian community in Lygon Street, sipping wine as they reminisce and josh around a table. There’s a sense of spontaneity about their discussion; they appear oblivious to the presence of the cameras. It’s as if we’re privy to a private conversation.
The film is at its most riveting in its first half, which covers the post-war period when Australia “flung its doors open to anyone willing to come” (anyone ‘white’, more accurately). The welcome wasn’t warm, however. There is a funny/sad tale of grim conditions at an Italian migrant holding camp, the worst aspect being the food – spaghetti sprinkled with sugar! – which prompted mass rebellion. Once the authorities agreed to replace the Polish and Russian cooks with Italians, calm returned.
The accounts of rampant bigotry in the greater population towards the ‘New Australians’ are sobering. In an excruciating excerpt from a movie newsreel of the 50s, the camera focuses on bemused Italians alighting from a packed ship, while a voiceover warns of the folly of allowing in too many non-Anglo types. It’s hard to imagine that the media only as far back as the 50s and 60s was proffering attitudes like this. Or is it? We’ve come a long way without getting anywhere in some respects.
The Australian-Greek community and the Perth Re family may have something to say about claims that the Italians of Lygon Street alone changed the monocultural-cuisine of Australia, introducing now intrinsic elements such as espresso machines and ‘real’ coffee, olive oil, genuine Italian pasta and pizzas. Perth had its own southern European food importer pioneers that pre-dated by decades the Lygon Street Italians. The Re and Kakulas families began importing coffee beans, olive oil, olives and continental foodstuffs back in the 30s.
But what’s an extravagant and under-researched claim here and there? There’s no doubting that Lygon Street transformed Melburnian palates, and had more than a ripple effect on the rest of the country. Or that Italian-style cuisine is now one of the most dominant in Australia.
This is a charming, enormously entertaining and eye-opening documentary that focuses on one migrant group and its influence on the national cuisine. However, food is but a measure in the larger agenda of contrasting an Australia of not so long ago with the very different place we live in today. There is enduring value in that.
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