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Film review: LYGON STREET: SI PARLA ITALIANO, from Built For Speed

The warm, amusing and highly informative documentary Lygon Street – Si parla Italiano recounts the history of one of Melbourne and Australia’s most iconic streets.  The film, engagingly narrated by Anthony La Paglia and featuring recollections from some of the street’s most prominent restaurateurs, traces the story of Lygon Street from its beginnings as a safe haven for waves of post-war Italian immigrants to its status as a pre-eminent restaurant and entertainment strip.  The film features a pleasing balance of archival footage, talking-head interviews and tasteful graphics as it explores this cosmopolitan part of Melbourne.

In the culinary desert of late 1940’s Australia, newly arrived Italian immigrants saw an opportunity to introduce cuisine and exotic, oddly-named coffees such as cappuccinos that were mostly unknown to Anglo-Australians. With thousands of Italian immigrants in Melbourne, the emergence of these specialty Italian food stores and restaurants quickly saw Lygon Street become an enclave of Italian culture.

Since that time the street has undergone numerous transitions and faced significant challenges. At one stage the Victorian government planned to flatten most of the area around Lygon Street and turn it into housing commission flats.  The film also makes explicit the racism Italian migrants faced, particularly in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, something, as this documentary reveals was captured in the works of little known local filmmaker Giorgio Mangiamele.  Also, with conservative Anglo-Australia struggling to appreciate what it regarded as odd cultural practices in Lygon street, the traders were often harassed by police.  In addition, the film recounts how the street has become a magnet for public celebrations with a joyous street party following Italy’s 1982 World Cup win but also a tragic alcohol-fuelled riot erupting after Australia’s win in the 1983 Americas Cup.

On a more positive note, the film also explores the way in which Lygon Street and venues like the Pram Factory became the epicentre of the alternative theatre scene that emerged from Melbourne Uni as part of the 1960’s counter culture.  The film features interviews with pioneers from that scene such as Graeme Blundell who regales us with stories of the time.

The film doesn’t ignore the street’s reputation for illegal gambling clubs and allegations of organised crime even though the interviewees, which include Mick Gatto, are keen to downplay those accusations as an exaggerated media fantasy.

Lygon Street is largely known as a restaurant strip so it is appropriate that the film emphasises the development of the street’s food culture.  Still, if there’s any criticism of this film, it’s that there’s a little too much rhapsodising about exotic cheeses and the early history of espresso machines; at times it feels as if we are watching the Lygon Street episode of a food-oriented lifestyle show.

With its sprightly pace, bouncy Italian folk music soundtrack and insightful and amusing interviews, Lygon Streeet – Si parla Italiano is a highly enjoyable exploration of a fascinating aspect of Melbourne’s history and a testament to the vital contribution migrants have made to Melbourne’s culture.

Nick’s rating: Four stars.

Genre: Documentary.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Angelo Pricolo, Shannon Swan.

Release date: 14th Nov 2013

Running time:  90 mins.

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