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When I asked my late father why he never bothered to teach his children to speak Italian, he said, "Why would you want Italian? English is what you need in this country." (And French, I reminded him, but he just rolled his eyes.) There was nothing alluring about being named "Nino" in 1940s Toronto. He'd get called "wop" on the street. During the Second World War, when he wasn't yet 10, he had to accompany his mother, my nonna, to the police station every week because my Italian grandparents had taken in lodgers: a German man married to a Japanese woman. Not the wisest move in wartime, perhaps, but they needed the money. The authorities were convinced the Axis powers had planted a nest of spies in Toronto's industrial west end, and it was my father's job to explain otherwise, because my grandmother spoke almost no English.

For my father, assimilation was the only goal; there was nothing glamorous about his parents' homeland. They were only too happy to have said arrivederci to poverty and never looked back. That said, he revered the traditions of Italian life - food, family, respect - and taught us to do the same.

For the Canadians of that time, Italy was just another backward country sending them vaguely unhygienic new guests. The idea of Italy as a paradise of style and high-living - molten-eyed Lotharios riding around on Vespas with big-haired strumpets plastered to their backs - came much later, with the cinema of the 1960s. The weird thing is, that's the image of Italy that's been lodged in our collective brain for decades since. We still think that Italy equals la dolce vita , even if the country itself is now the laughingstock of Europe, lurching from one bad decision to the next, with no money in its pockets and a clown at the steering wheel.

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Nine , the Rob Marshall musical that's in theatres now, is a perfect example: It's set in Rome in 1962, and thus makes a fetish of bella Italia : the low-slung cars, the hissing espresso machines, the women's eyeliner as perfect as ravens' wings. What would you rather see, the putrid garbage heaps and anti-immigration rallies of real-life modern Italy, or Daniel Day-Lewis in a suit so sharp it could cut bread?

Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a director trapped between his self-doubt and the many women in tight skirts who want his attention. "Be Italian!" sings one of the women, the village whore of Contini's youth, which seems to mean: Run around smoking and shrugging enigmatically and avoiding your wife at all costs. Drive around, that is. Italians of that period didn't run, unless an angry husband was in pursuit.

The joke is that Contini hasn't made a good movie in years. "I love your early films," his fans keeping telling him, to his despair. All his recent movies have been flops. It's a perfect metaphor for Italy itself, once such a paradise, and now so far from its idealized self.

You can see the appeal of Nine 's retro-kitsch, since the real Italy (Tuscan hills and Sicilian beaches aside) is a lot less picturesque these days. Silvio Berlusconi is prime minister for the third time, despite a series of offensive statements (remember Obama's "tan?") and a slew of conflict-of-interest charges (some of which he will now have to face, after his own law guaranteeing him immunity from prosecution was struck down). The country has some of the most hateful anti-immigrant policies in Europe - a historical irony, considering how many of its own citizens were jettisoned to populate the New World. Italian football fans shout racist abuse that would have them booted out of the stadium in other European countries. This, of course, does not represent the view of a majority of Italians, and last month's "No Berlusconi" rallies might be the start of something.

The bloggers of Italy are in a rage over new laws they say will curtail their right to criticize politicians. I couldn't put it better than Giulio D'Eramo did on the Index on Censorship website: "Italians are now living in [Berlusconi's]imagined world. It's a world without respect for woman, legality or financial accountability; which values only individual success, money."

But to understand that side of things, you'd best avoid Hollywood's Italy-healed-me dross like Under the Tuscan Sun and turn instead to the country's own filmmakers, people like Matteo Garrone ( Gomorra ) and Paolo Sorrentino ( Il Divo ). Nine includes a hackneyed scene in which Guido's mama (played by Sophia Loren) sings that there's no substitute for maternal love, but Garrone, in his brutal movie about the Mafia that runs Naples, turns the myth of filial devotion on its head in one blood-chilling scene. Mama, it turns out, is much more expendable than the mob.

Nine is based on 8 1/2, Federico Fellini's great account of his own creative misery. From his base at Cinecittà studios, Fellini seduced the world with his jokes and metaphysical puzzles and a brilliant sense of style that couldn't cure world-weariness, but could transcend it for a bit. Mussolini built Cinecittà as a propaganda factory, but a different, more enduring kind of propaganda came out of it instead: A dream of Italy as an earthly, earthy paradise where all the men look like Marcello Mastroianni, all the women are shaped like Sophia Loren, and lunch goes on for days. It's a dream that's still stuck in the heads of everyone who loves the country, and the children of its immigrants, but I fear it survives only on celluloid.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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