by writer/director Raymond De Felitta
As an ardent New Yorker and life-long (practically) Manhattan-ite, I've often needed reminding that there is a big world outside of Manhattan Island.
But when I started making my own films in New York, I began to notice that most New York movies are actually mis-labeled; really they should be called Manhattan movies. Only when Spike Lee began to venture regularly into the lives of the residents of Brooklyn did mainstream audiences begin to sense how much life exists in the outerboroughs and how unrepresentative most New York movies are.
In 2000, I made a film called Two Family House which explored life in Staten Island in the 1950s among a tight knit Italian-American enclave. I didn't think there was anything unusual about portraying this group of folks—it was a story and group of people I grew up around and wished to explore.
So I was surprised when, upon the films release, I found myself praised for having depicted Italian-Americans who weren't gangsters. Similarly a number of critics mentioned how refreshing it was to see a New York movie with no Manhattan in it. To me, the outer-boroughs of New York are, in fact, the center of the city—the homes of the people who make the place run: the cops, firemen, teachers, secretaries, roadworkers, shopowners. These are the true New Yorkers. Many of them live in the Bronx–a large and often misunderstood borough (it happens to be where my family comes from). And within the Bronx lay a "secret" that I was privileged to discover—one which gave me the foundation for a movie.
City Island is that secret—a place that even hard core New Yorkers like myself might not know exists. City Island is a fishing village located in the Bronx—and if that sounds incongruous, you ought to see the place for yourself. About a mile long, jutting out into the sound, it feels like a New England fishing village that somehow got towed into the wrong port. It's a place where time stands still, where the residents all know each other and their families, where the true life acquatic is lived—everyone seems to have a little boat that they spend their weekends on or near. To have lived on City Island your whole life is a special distinction to residents and this privelege comes with a name: "clam-diggers" is what they call people who were literally born on the island and who have never moved. Assuming you come from elsewhere and choose to live there, you’re called a "mussel-sucker." Though the residents claim there is nothing derogatory about the term, I think I’d prefer to be a clam-digger anyday.
I decided to write a movie set on City Island after my first visit. To be accurate, I already had an idea for a movie but I didn't know it was set on City Island. I wanted to tell a modern day story of an Italian-American family filled with secrets and troubles—and in particular of the male head of the household.
But place is so important to me in writing, and without a strong reason to set the story somewhere the outlines of it remained vague. Until I realized that City Island, with its distinctive air of tradition and eccentric sense of self, was the perfect place to set down the Rizzo family—a true group of clam-diggers if ever there was one.
The Rizzos are a family caught in the web of personal change that none of them are capable of making. This, naturally, has led to a largely hostile environment in their home. Vince, the father, has nurtured acting ambitions for years but is ashamed to admit it. His secret visits to an acting class in the city lead his wife Joyce to believe he's having an affair. Meanwhile the couples two teenage children have their own—ahem—very private lives. And Vince's discovery of the biggest secret of his life winds up being the catalyst that forces everyone's skeletons out of the closet. Locating the story on City Island not only gave me the opportunity as a filmmaker of capturing a ravishing and rarely filmed environment, but it gave the story a metaphoric weight that it needed: proof that beautiful things can be found in the strangest places.
And the same can be said for City Island—a beautiful piece of another time, another world, located in the oddest of places. I hope I've been able to fuse the two and, above all, create a world that is both specific and universal; for the story of the Rizzo family is the story of every family and their struggle to remain true to themselves as well as being a cohesive unit. That the Rizzos live in an urban paradise is fortunate for them. That I got to create a film in that special place was both an honor and a responsibility to me.