Italian Migration and Modernity in 1950s Montréal

Two events to go back to the roots of the Montréal Italian community.

 Pictures, memories, stories. Faces becoming names, events animating tales, in the present as in the past. Twenty-eight stories about the Italian immigration to Montréal are enclosed in twenty-eight shots exposed in the photographic exhibition  “Fuori Casa: gli anni ’50 negli scatti privati degli italiani a Montréal” curated by the documentarist Giovanni Princigalli and professor Giuliana Minghelli.

The aim of this exhibition is to reveal the voices of 1950s Italian immigrants, voices that find in images a silent yet lively expression. “Fuori Casa”, literally “outdoor”, aim at showing those people in public contexts such as political demonstrations, carnivals, religious processions or days of school. The exhibition portrays the life outside the household, outside the familiar dimension that is paramount for Italians, but cannot fully speak for their identities. Minghelli and Princigalli want to see how these people lived outside, in a social context completely new, where the Italian immigrant met the Montrealer and eventually became one of them.

Every picture raises surprise, nostalgia or admiration. These feelings stem from the images, but the viewer must go beyond them, must wonder what “lies behind them,” as Princigalli explains, what is “the story hidden by the shot.” These are personal stories, as Minghelli says, “every picture has a personal voice that stems from the interaction between the people that preserve them and those who go back to look at them after much time.” Then, the stories of these pictures do not stop telling themselves, but keep on creating a narration that spreads in the past, present and future.

Italian immigrants’ life was not easy in those years. They were far from home and longed for a new community where they could feel “at home.” Media like Cinema can help us to remember the growth of this community and the attempts of those people to maintain their relations to Italy. Documentaries like “Ricordati di noi” or “Caffè Italia” by Paul Tana give the spectator the sense of stories that had to be told and preserved by the cinematic memory. These films are wonderful archives of a past that would have disappeared otherwise. This is the past of common people, of workers that managed to bring all their relatives to Montreal, of women that, before moving from Italy, dreamt a completely different life from the one that they faced once arrived in Canada.

Princigalli showed part of “Ricordati di me” to the public of the Leonardo da Vinci Centre. He told the story of this documentary, as amazing as those portrayed in it. “Ricordati di me” was born from an operation of “Cinema archeology”, that is to say the finding of many reels of film in the basement of the newspaper “Corriere Italiano”. Princigalli and Tana retrieved those images and let the voices contained in them speak again. Then, on Friday 20th, “Caffè Italia” was screened at the McGill University screening room on Peel Street. At the end of the screening, the discussion revealed how the past of those immigrants (the documentary was released in 1985) is still meaningful and suggestive for Italians that leave the country today and go through a new kind of emigration. Today, many Italians move abroad for different reasons, as the 1950s immigrants did. Despite all the differences that must be taken into account, the movement of these people has something to say about Italian culture that must not be forgotten. These movements are extremely important to understand what “Italian identity” means today.

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