A bid to give Hollywood heavyweight actor Robert De Niro honorary Italian citizenship has pitted many of his adoring fans in Italy against some Italian Americans who say his movie Mafia roles give them a bad name.
Italy's Culture Ministry plans to make De Niro and filmmaker Martin Scorsese, with whom De Niro often collaborates, Italian citizens during the international Venice Film Festival in September, a decision that has thrilled Italians who already consider the film greats their own.
But this week the Order Sons of Italy in America, which says it has more than 600,000 members in the United States, sent a letter to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi urging him to cancel plans to confer citizenship on the actor.
"De Niro has made a career of playing gangsters of Italian descent," the group said in the letter. "He has done nothing to promote Italian culture in the United States. Instead, OSIA and its members hold him and his movies responsible for considerably damaging the collective reputations of both Italians and Italian Americans."
But the mayor of Ferrazzano, the village of 3,280 that De Niro's family originally hails from, feels differently.
"This is a moment we're all waiting for. He's a great actor and has helped make Italy known all over the world," said Giovanni Gianfelice. "Sure, movies exaggerate, but not just about Italy, about America too."
The mayor said he has received a wave of supportive phone calls from fans and politicians around Italy.
De Niro's great-grandparents emigrated from Ferrazzano, in Italy's central Molise region, at the end of the 19th century, joining thousands of Italians seeking a better life in America.
In films such as "The Godfather," De Niro often portrays mobsters who trace their roots back to Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia.
The New York-born actor is scheduled to travel to Venice to promote "Shark Tale," a new animated film produced by DreamWorks about a shark mob boss and full of characters with Italian names.
"From our conversations with DreamWorks and from what we have seen to date from the studio's own website, promotional material and trailer, this movie will perpetuate the image of Italian Americans as Mafia gangsters," the Order Sons of Italy in America said.
The group has repeatedly criticized Hollywood's stereotyping of Italian Americans in programs such as "The Sopranos."
Italy's Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani is evaluating the group's complaint, but at this point has not changed his plans to confer citizenship on De Niro and Scorsese, a source at the ministry said.
"It could conceivably be put off, but so far the process is unaffected," the source said.