Beyond the Goomah: Italian-American Femininity in Moonstruck

Beyond the Goomah: Italian-American Femininity in Moonstruck

‘Tis the season to think about family, about togetherness, and the push and pull of our identities that lead our search for love and belonging throughout the holidays and beyond. For Katy D’Avella, Moonstruck speak to this search as an Italian-American woman better than anything else could – behold, an ode to Loretta Castorini.

I’m as Italian-American as a cappuccino after noon.

Growing up on the East Coast, it was always all about family. Every Sunday, my parents would drag me and my brothers to a long, terrifying mass at the Roman Catholic church next door — where our uncle was the priest. My aunts ran a nail parlour together on Long Island. My father’s cousins owned an Italian meat distributor, slinging out gabagool and ready-made baked ziti. Their business motto? Where family comes first

I used to find these details of my heritage boring. But these days, everyone loves Italian-American culture. During lockdown, millions of people binged The Sopranos and re-visited The Godfather. I watched the recent onslaught of memes, style accounts, and queer re-evaluations of my culture with bemusement.

These series and films are famous for their violent masculinity. Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, Henry Hill… the world fell strangely in love with these gun-toting, scene-stealing men. But look out for the women they always cast aside: the hysterical wife, the nameless goomah, the mother in the shadows. With their smudged mascara or their back to the camera, these women are always integral to the leading man’s life. But they never get their own story. And I promise you, our stories are just as good.

So let me introduce to you the salve regina of Italian-American femininity: Moonstruck’s  Loretta Castorini.

Moonstruck doesn’t exactly have all the fixings of a great Italian-American film. It’s written by a Jewish-Canadian (John Patrick Shanley), directed by an Irish-American (Norman Jewison), and stars, well, Cher. But it has to be the most thoughtful and admiring depiction of my culture I’ve ever seen. Cher plays Loretta, a stuck-in-the-mud widow living with her parents in 1980s working-class Brooklyn. During a particularly magical few waxing moons, Loretta falls hastily in love with her fiancé’s brother.

The film opens to the Italian-American anthem (and my go-to karaoke song) ‘That’s Amore’ by Dean Martin. Soon, we meet Loretta, who is draped in dowdy grey wools and works at a funeral home. Her life feels wrapped in shame: she is unwed and unfulfilled. After a lacklustre dinner proposal, she agrees to marry her very “meh!” lover, Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello).

“Do you love him, Loretta?” asks her mother Rose (the dazzling Olympia Dukakis). The truth? She doesn’t. “Good,” Rose sighs. “When you love them, they drive you crazy — because they know they can.” 

Things are not going well for Loretta. Her life is dreary, like a dirty bank of days-old snow on the pavement. But that’s only until she seeks out Johnny’s estranged brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to invite him to the wedding. The chemistry between them is strangely beautiful. Soon after meeting, they fall into bed. Several screaming matches, a make-over montage, and an opera rendez-vous later, the two are in love. 

It’s all so improbable, so visceral, so full of magic. And it belongs to the great canon of films in which beautiful women cry at the opera. 

What I love most about it? Its brash, rosy-cheeked heroine. Loretta is a loving, regal homage to the Italian-American woman. She’s impulsive and warm. She’s theatrical and superstitious. She’s got higher hair than Marge Simpson. And she’s absolutely dripping with third-generation Italian immigrant charm. 

It’s an identity I share with Loretta. My great-grandparents moved to New York City from southern Italy in the early 1900s. Italy doesn’t feel like home to me, but somehow it’s tied up in my understanding of self. To be third or fourth generation is not to have a foot in two worlds, but, rather, to have two feet firmly planted in the new world — and to still be unable to shake off the old one. For me, that nagging feeling is bound up with the expectations of my family. For Loretta, it seems to be all about her own destiny, and her predetermined role as a woman.

Throughout Moonstruck, Loretta struggles with this predetermined role, one she’s sure she’s failed at. She’s failed to be a proper bride, and that’s why her husband died. She’s failed to stay faithful, and that’s why she’ll never find a meaningful love. 

But there comes a moment where she’s had enough internalised voices of the motherland in her head. She gazes at a photograph of a beautiful olive-skinned woman outside a beauty salon, and decides to go in. A quiet and sparse make-over follows (one that celebrates her thick, dark hair). Soon, we see Loretta staring lovingly in the mirror, putting on lipstick before heading into the moonlight. It’s a classic make-over scene, but devoid the normal cacophony of music and glitz, this one sees a woman making the simple, daunting choice to prioritise herself above expectations of her.

By making bold choices that honour herself, Loretta subverts spectres of the old world. She carves her own destiny, one freed from expectation or superstition. It is loving and intimate, and it all happens to a medley of Italian folk flutes. Of course.

In Moonstruck, Loretta Castorini stomps all over the insultingly limited way my culture has depicted women in film for decades. She holds our gaze, wins our love, and makes sure we know her name. Her character gives the Italian-American woman permission to experience joy, to bask in love, to make their own decisions, to honour self and family — and to have their own meaningful arcs.

Katy D’Avella is an American writer based in London. Her work can be read at In the Mood Magazine, Electric Ghost, and Screen Queens.

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