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Image Research Project: Italian Culture on Film (1928-2002)

This study was conducted from 1996 to 2002.

Films which portray Italians in a positive light 374 (31%)
Films which portray Italians in a negative light 859 (69%)

Mob characters 500 (40%)
(Real mob characters) 58 (12%)
(Fake mob characters) 442 (88%)
Boors, buffoons, bigots or bimbos 359 (29%)
Positive or complex portrayals 374 (31%)

Mob movies prior to "The Godfather" 207 (43%)
Mob movies after "The Godfather" 293(57%)

TOTAL NUMBER OF ITALIAN AMERICANS (2000 U.S. Census) 15 - 16 million
TOTAL NUMBER OF ITALIAN CRIMINALS (1999 F.B.I. Statistics) 1,150(.0078%)
(Historically, Italians gang members never numbered more than 5,000, which amounts to less than .0034% of the overall Italian American community.)


  1. Close to 300 movies featuring Italians as criminals have been produced since the success of "The Godfather" (1972), an average of 9 mob movies a year over the past 30 years.

  2. Of the overall total 500 mob movies, only 12% are based on real-life criminals. The remaining 88% are fictionalized stereotypes.

  3. Positive or complex portrayals of Italians are often treated fleetingly--i.e., as supporting characters. It is indeed rare to have a film featuring a complex, non-stereotypical Italian character as a main protagonist from start to finish (e.g., Al Pacino in 1973's "Serpico" or Meryl Streep in 1996's "The Bridges of Madison County").

  4. The criteria for selecting films is based on image, not aesthetics. Thus, although "The Godfather" is indeed a great film, it falls under the category of "negative" for portraying crime as an "integral" part of Italian culture.
To Die For film


In the 1995 film, "To Die For", based on a true story, Nicole Kidman's character (above) tricks three teens into killing her low-brow Italian husband whose family gets even by hiring a mobster to kill her.

In real-life, however, the only Italians involved were the two State Attorneys, Paul Maggiotto and Diane Nicolosi, who convicted the murderess to a life sentence. (Shades of Daniel Petrocelli beating O.J. Simpson at his civil trial!).

"To Die For" is a typical example of how the facts of real-life incidents are often distorted or misinterpreted to put a "negative" spin on Italian-Americans.


The Image Research Project was initiated in 1995 by Bill Dal Cerro, an Italic Institute Media Director and film critic for Fra Noi Italian American newspaper in Chicago.

In addition to Mr. Dal Cerro's encyclopaedic knowledge of film, four of the Institute's top researchers contributed film titles and input on a continuous basis. Another 100 titles remain to be added to the project pending personal verification by the researchers.


Film portrayals were classified individually, yet headed under the rubric of either "Positive" or "Negative," depending on the image conveyed of Italian/Italian American culture.

Since film viewing is considered a subjective experience, borderline cases were weighted by overall image and/or an attempt at balance.

For example: "The Godfather" has complex characters, which is a plus; however, the overwhelming impression it leaves with the viewers is one of a culture tied to criminality. There's no balance; therefore it's a negative.

A film like John Sayle's 1991 "City of Hope," on the other hand, features a corrupt Italian mayor and a father and son in conflict; however, there are a myriad of other Italian American characters who provide a positive balance (a schoolteacher, a young single mother, etc.). Most importantly, criminality is not seen as an "integral" component of Italian culture; therefore, it's a positive.

The plethora of Italian gangster images (even the "comical" ones like "Oscar" or "Analyze This") need no explanation. They merely reinforce what is already a pernicious stereotype. The same for portrayals of boors, buffoons, bigots and bimbos.


Since Italian stereotypes remain a staple of popular entertainment, the figures and percentages, though consistent, remain in flux. Further research of historical films, or verification of upcoming projects, necessitates a fluidity in the overall methodology.

For a copy of the Institute's complete, 40 page study, send a check for $10.00 (postage and handling) to:
Italic Institute of America P.O. Box 818 Floral Park, NY 11001

Copyright © 2007 Italic Institute of America, P.O. Box 818, Floral Park, NY 11001     Last updated November 2007