Based on a story by Thomas H. Ince and Crawford Gardner Sullivan, The Italian contains many of the stereotypes that would be repeated in storylines focusing on Italian immigrants in the States. The first part of the film shows a clichéd and idealized Italy where inhabitants live in an archaic rural context, wear folk costumes, use gestures to communicate, and spend their time singing, dancing and in love. To complete the evocative and equally unreal picture, the main character Beppo is a gondolier in Venice, emblem of Italy’s picturesque landscape in the imagination of an average American viewer at the time. Despite such an idyllic setting, many Italians are compelled to emigrate for a more dignified life: that is the case for Beppo, who leaves for the United States to provide his beloved Annette with an honorable future.
With Beppo’s arrival in New York, the film dramatically changes tone: the chaotic urban metropolis is quite hostile to Italian immigrants and will prove to be fatal for Beppo and Annette, who leaves Italy to marry him. Their newborn son dies of starvation, a death linked to poverty but also to the hostile attitude of the authorities, corruption, bullying and crime which the poor Italian-American neighborhoods are subject to. In line with the stereotypes of his nationality, Beppo vows to take revenge on the person he considers responsible for his child’s death, but in the end does not, demonstrating the deep humanity that convention attributes to Italians. Regardless of the inevitable – for the time – clichés of the story, the second part of The Italian offers raw and realistic images of the misery and squalor of the Italian-American slums of the early twentieth century; the dramatic use of chiaroscuro in the photography emphasizes the tragic conditions in which the immigrants lived. Of equal note is the superb performance of George Beban, who ably expresses the main character’s conflicting feelings with sensational mimicry and extraordinary dramatic energy.