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AMERICA'S LAST LITTLE ITALY: THE HILL - SLIFF Review - We Are Movie Geeks

Review

AMERICA’S LAST LITTLE ITALY: THE HILL – SLIFF Review

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AMERICA’S LAST LITTLE ITALY: THE HILL screens as part of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival November 5th – 22nd.Ticket information for the virtual screening can be found HERE. Read the WAMG interview with the film’s director HERE

“America’s Last Little Italy” explores the deep historic roots of the Hill, St. Louis’ iconic Italian neighborhood. Italians who immigrated to St. Louis in search of the American Dream built a “Little Italy” in the city’s heart that still flourishes to this day. Similar neighborhoods in other urban areas have long ago lost their specifically Italian character, making the Hill the last of a dying breed. The first feature by St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase alum Joseph Puleo, whose short “Top Son” won Best Comedy at the 2016 event, “America’s Last Little Italy” was the audience-choice winner as Best Documentary at this year’s Showcase.

Review of AMERICA’S LAST LITTLE ITALY: THE HILL:

Here’s a film that answers a question many city dwellers may have been
asking themselves in the “new normal”. Since traveling overseas is
near-impossible with all the restrictions and guaranteeing, is there a
way to perhaps get a taste of another country. In the past, that’s
been an easy option since big metropolis centers like NYC and Chicago
would often have a section of town revolving around the homeland of
its occupants. And usually, those areas would be referred to as
“little” (with exceptions like “Chinatown”, “Greek-town”, or
“Korea-town”), as in “Little Bosnia” or “Little Puerto Rico”. But one
of these ethnic staples appears to be fading away from major cities,
save for a stronghold in, of all places, St. Louis, MO. So how is it
flourishing in the “Gateway to the West”? That and many more questions
are answered and explored in the informative and entertaining new
feature documentary AMERICA’S LAST LITTLE ITALY: THE HILL.

Using lots of archival photos and footage along with interviews with
several resident-historians, the film takes us back in time, over 150
years from the very early days of St. Lou, to the discovery of rich
clay deposits in the soil. Immigrants soon arrived to work the mines
that sprung up to supply much-needed building materials for the
rapidly expanding country. And most of those workers were “right off
the boat” from Italy. Of course, they didn’t want to endure a long
daily commute, so they settled in the elevated area close to the mines
and factories, which they nicknamed “The Hill”. Several local
expressions are explained by the “talking heads”. The workers wanted
to start families with women from the “old country”, so matches were
made via letters and photos, hence the spouses were “picture brides”.
Their newly built houses, in order to avoid the taxes for wide
domiciles, adopted a floor plan called the “shotgun style” ( a gun
blast through the front door could exit out the back door). And though
the residents came from the same country, there were “class feuds”
between those from Lombardy in northern Italy and those from the
South, mainly Sicily near the toe of the “boot” (accents were so
thick, communication became a problem). Luckily a man from the South
St. Louis YMCA, Causino Joe, stopped the formation of gangs, by
organizing neighborhood sports teams instead. This proved a launching
pad for two of the Hill’s most famous native sons, baseball Hall of
Famers Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola (the other major sport was soccer
and five players from the Hill starred in the 1950 FIFA World Cup).
During Prohibition, the area became a bootlegging “hotspot” with many
homes having stills in “hidden basements”. When WWII began the Hill
sent several sons and fathers despite the Mussolini-inspired bigotry
(we’re told of real plans of Italian-American internment camps). As
the decades roll on, the Hill remains somewhat untouched (a “cocoon”
from 60s turmoil as one native called it). One big constant is the
Catholic church, the beloved St. Ambrose. A big segment is on their
crusading priest, Salvatore Polizzi, who made sure the streets didn’t
suffer the “urban decay” of the early 70s while fighting against a new
highway that threatened to split the Hill in two (he even turned down
an offer to join the Carter White House). This leads us up to modern
times as the area retains all of its charms, natives end up buying and
living in their childhood homes (everybody wants in it seems), and the
streets are packed on weekends with tourists and locals lured by the
heavenly smells of the dozens of superb Italian restaurants.

Director/ writer Joseph Puleo has crafted a warm affectionate ode to
one of the true treasures of the Midwest. It’s as warm and satisfying
as a steaming bowl of pasta straight from Mama’s kitchen on a brisk
winter’s night. As mentioned earlier, there are many instances of that
documentary staple, the “talking heads”, but they never become tiring.
Though it seems that the years have slowed them, these seniors are
invigorated by recalling their beloved home. The interviews are deftly
balanced with the engaging newsreel footage and precious 8mm home
movies recalling the glorious days when several generations could be
brought together at a packed dining room table. Kudos to co-producer
Steve Cakouros for editing these faded images (oh, the captured
“ghosts) and for the subtle melodic soundtrack which steers clear of
ethnic score clichés. It’s a much-needed reminder of the wonders often
hidden inside cities. Thanks to this dazzling historical travelogue
everyone can spend an engaging 70 minutes in AMERICA’S LITTLE ITALY:
THE HILL while we await the day we can all sit down together at one of
its eateries and “Mangia!”.

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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