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Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” is universally regarded as a classic film. Winning multiple Oscars, launching the acting career of Stallone himself (perhaps not the best consequence in the long run…), and inspiring several people to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, virtually everyone has cheered on “The Italian Stallion” in his fight against Apollo Creed and knows Rocky Balboa as a household name. However, what most people don’t realize is that the film contains several ideas related to the Italian-American identity and coincides with many stereotypes and images previously laid out for Italian-Americans.
The most obvious tip-off to the Italian-American identity is the setting of the movie itself. The action of “Rocky” takes place in Philadelphia, a city situated on the East Coast. The point of immigration was Ellis Island, and the East Coast is full of vibrant Italian-American communities. Virtually all important examples of cinema involving Italian-Americans take place on the East Coast (“The Godfather” [New York], “Goodfellas” [New York], “The Sopranos” [New Jersey]) and “Rocky” is no exception. Furthermore, “Rocky” is set in the seedy suburbs of Philadelphia. This is a comment on how Italian-Americans throughout history did not have the means to live in rich neighborhoods and are associated with “sketchy” urban environments.
“Rocky” also caters to several Italian-American stereotypes. The titular character in question is relatively dim-witted, simple-minded, and is seen as a brute who is only good for his physical capabilities. This complies with the “palooka” Italian-American stereotype in other boxing movies such as “The Golden Boy” and “Raging Bull”. The mob stereotype is present as well. Rocky works as a bit of a “collector” for a local mobster named Gazzo (another Italian-American). Even the “Romeo” stereotype has a slight representation; Rocky relentlessly pursues Adrian in a forward, confident, and downright “pushy” manner, all characteristics of the way “guidos” court.
Despite all of these less-than-remarkable appearances of Italian-American stereotypes, some positive ones are present as well. Rocky is hard working and focused to the point of stubborn behavior, a trait that many of us associated with Italian-Americans when we did the activity involving preconceptions at the beginning of the semester. Also present in that activity and the movie was the belief that Italian-Americans are always looking to better the social status of themselves and the ones they love. Rocky is not satisfied with the cards life has dealt him and trains relentlessly for a shot at Apollo Creed, which represents a successful and fulfilling lifestyle. In addition, I believe that Rocky sees that Adrian is not living a life that fulfills her and courts her with the intentions of making her happier.
Another interesting discovery was that the movie is also a very subtle commentary on racial relations. The Italian-Americans and African Americans have come into conflict due to the fact that they have historically shared the same living areas, conditions, and social status. It seems like far too large of a coincidence that Apollo Creed is African American. Perhaps the fight between Rocky and he is a representation of a much larger battle.
Of course, it’s possible to enjoy “Rocky” without noticing or appreciating any of these details. Despite all of the points offered up in this essay, one could just write it off as an American underdog story and still sleep soundly at night. But when one watches it with an educated eye, one realizes how many aspects of the Italian-American identity the movie exposes, reinforces, and deals with. It becomes a far more rewarding piece of cinema with that in mind.
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