Who is the "Real" New York? Digging for Clams on City Island



In a city that has become synonymous with the isle of Manhattan, director and writer De Felitta, in his new film City Island (2009), presents a refreshing story of “real” New Yorkers. Yet what does this actually signify? New York, in its essence, is an amalgam of all those who came before us, and all those who continue to settle here—both in and around the big island.


Our story takes place on City Island, a small fishing village that apparently feels more like New England than New York, also known as a little piece of paradise in the Bronx. Protagonist Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) tells us that there are two kinds of people on City Island—clam diggers and mussel suckers. The clam diggers are those who were born and raised on the island. Mussel suckers are the gentrifiers, or all those who choose to live there. De Felitta introduces us to a family of Italian-American clam diggers on a quest to find domestic peace, not only within the home, but also within themselves.


City Island is ultimately a story about authenticity and performativity—or how we choose to represent our idea of self to others—and the secrets we keep in order to obfuscate our true identities. Mrs. Joyce Rizzo, played by Julianna Margulies, is convinced that her husband is cheating on her. Meanwhile, Vince Rizzo is too ashamed to admit that he is taking an acting class in the city, a ruse that he maintains under the guise of weekly poker nights. Their daughter, Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido), spends her days as a nude dancer while lying about being in college. Vince Junior, played by the hilarious Ezra Miller, would rather skip high school to look at porn. In the middle of such domestic chaos comes the arrival of Tony Nardella (Steven Strait). A felon on parole, he ironically seems the least dysfunctional of the Rizzo clan. Of course, much drama ensues, but not without many hilarious scenes along the way.


De Felitta has been praised for depicting Italian-Americans who are not gangsters. He writes about his motivation for making a New York film where Manhattan is not the only island of interest: “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.” Manhattanites love to perform what they imagine a “real” New Yorker to be. In the boroughs, the pressure to perform “New York” is not as profound.


Yet, our borough story is still one based on a series of constructed identities. The Rizzos, in order to resolve their domestic conflict must first learn how to shed their secrets. De Felitta does not necessarily explore a community that is any more “real” than another, but rather, he tells the story of a class of New Yorker too easily forgotten by popular culture. Essentially, he will not let us forget the importance of all those who live in the boroughs and who contribute to the daily function of Manhattan—a feat which I greatly appreciate.


De Felitta has successfully woven a tale of family dysfunction into a witty and touching drama. In sum, it is refreshing to find a New York story that explores a new island. I highly suggest making some time for this film, as it really is worth it.  



New York City