To Be Absolutely Frank

Mourning an American in Rome

Europeans still love us. They just have a funny way of showing it.

By 2.27.03

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Among the quarter of a million people who gathered in Rome yesterday to mourn the death of Alberto Sordi, many carried banners expressing their love. "Yesterday an American in Rome," read one, "today a Roman in heaven."

The reference was to one of the actor's greatest roles, as the star of Un Americano a Roma (1954). In that film Sordi plays Nando Moriconi, a young Italian man obsessed with New World music and popular culture. He walks in a bow-legged swagger that seems a parody of John Wayne, sports a baseball cap, and dreams of being the next Gene Kelly.

The film is no polished gem, but Sordi's performance is. His "American"-sounding babble, like his hilariously "bad" dancing, is the kind of thing that only a master can make look easy. The sight of him in a policeman's cap and wind goggles, riding a motorcycle and calling himself the "Sheriff of Kansas City," is alone worth the price of the DVD.

The ultimate joke is that the real Americans whom Nando encounters are nothing like the straight-shooting stereotypes he knows from Hollywood westerns and musicals. They are either rich young bohemians or starchy imperial overlords. (The actor playing the U.S. consul actually appears to be an Englishman.)

Despite such disappointments, Nando holds on to his Quixotic illusions. Though he more than once takes a literal beating at American hands, he never stops trying to be an American himself.

The film's attitude toward Americans is hardly less affectionate than the protagonist's. We are objects of good-natured fun, but in no way sinister or oppressive, and it's clear that Nando brings all his trouble onto himself. Which is astonishing, when you think about the context in which the movie was made.

Half a century ago, the end of World War II was as fresh a memory as, say, the Oklahoma City bombing is today. Italy had yet to experience its "economic miracle," and was more or less a Third World country under unmistakable U.S. dominance. You can see this in the film, when an Italian police inspector automatically doffs his hat in the presence of an American embassy attaché. Yet there is no hint of resentment.

Even today in Italy, except on the extreme left and right, feelings toward the United States are overwhelmingly favorable. People who know about Germany tell me the same is true there. (Never mind what you've read about the recent peace marches. Most people in these countries oppose a war against Saddam Hussein not because they are afraid of American "hyperpower" -- that's a French expression, and a French sentiment -- but because they're convinced that nothing good can come from war. Given their 20th-century experience, it's not hard to understand why they think so, even if they have war to thank for their freedom from Fascism.)

It may seem only just that Japan, Germany and Italy (today the world's third, fourth and eighth largest economies) should be grateful to America, whose financial help and military protection made possible their post-war success. Whatever else the United States manages to accomplish in its tenure as the sole superpower, its magnanimity in victory will go down as one of its most glorious legacies.

Yet people tend to feel the opposite of love for those to whom they owe a debt. Somehow the U.S. has managed to defy this law of human nature. Maybe the reason is that America, a nation of immigrants, exemplifies ideals to which all nations feel they can aspire. Which is also why millions like Nando Moriconi love a country that they will never even see.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.