The Franco Cozzo building on Sydney Rd has been a part of Brunswick for over 40 years. Much like its titular owner, the store is an iconic piece of Melbourne; rich with charm, history, and flamboyant flare.
Walking past the building, one can’t help but peer in at the swathes of beautiful, baroque furniture strewn across the showroom floor. It was this signature furniture that inspired Madeleine Martiniello to create her first feature-length documentary – Palazzo Di Cozzo.
In a recent interview with Brunswick Daily, Madeleine shares her experience as a first-time director, sheds light on her unlikely relationship with Franco Cozzo, and explains how the film came together to form a rich perspective on Australian migrationism.
Brunswick Daily (BD): Firstly, I absolutely loved the film. It’s been a lot of fun chatting with locals and hearing their thoughts after watching it. How have you found the audience’s reaction? Has it lived up to your expectations?
Madeleine: Well, I didn’t have huge expectations, but I’ve been really happy with the response, and I always thought that there would be a Melbourne audience for it.
It’s funny because it’s my first feature-length film, I’d never experienced that feeling of having something out in the cinema. It was strange to think that people could go and watch this thing that I created and form their own opinions on it. It sort of has its own independent life.
BD: Yeah, for sure. It’s always scary when the first project goes out. You kind of just release it and then it becomes its own thing from there, right?
Madeleine: Yeah! And with a shorter television cut of the film being broadcast on the ABC soon, it feels like it’s happening all over again!
BD: Well again, I loved the film. The end result is something really special, and one thing that really stood out to me is the interviewing. It’s very familiar and candid. In your conversations with Franco, there are some moments that even felt like I was spending an evening with my own Nonno. What was it like working with Franco? Did it take time to build up that trust or was he comfortable from the get-go?
Madeleine: He was comfortable being interviewed in a certain dynamic, because, y’know, he has been in front of the camera so much. But I guess getting to that more, like you said, kind of casual, intimate type of relationship took a bit more time.
It’s funny, for me, it was similar. I have Italian grandparents. And so I feel like Franco and I kind of innately knew how to interact because of that cultural understanding. I think that did help get to that trusting, informal relationship a lot faster.
Madeleine interacting with Frank backstage. Source: Madeleine Martiniello
BD: It really does come through in the film. There’s a cultural dynamic happening in the conversation for sure.
Madeleine: Yeah! And also, that nice cross-generational dynamic. I think it would have been a totally different film if it was someone older who was working with Franco. The interviewing dynamic was partly about that shared culture, but also partly about the way you interact with someone across generations.
BD: Absolutely. I think that’s crucial given that the documentary explores migrationism. Franco offers really great insights on the migrant experience, especially regarding the experience of living through the White Australia Policy. Was this something you had initially set out to cover or did it reveal itself a bit more organically?
Note: Franco Cozzo departed from Italy in 1955 and arrived in Melbourne in 1956. With little English, little money and no connections in Australia, Franco created his furniture chain and gradually began his iconic television appearances, all while living under the discriminatory demands of the White Australia policy.
Madeleine: It was something I was keen to talk about explicitly. While Franco Cozzo is, on the one hand, this absolutely beloved, iconic figure, part of his appeal is also that… how do I put it? People can sometimes see him as this kind of caricature.
We’re so used to Italian and European culture now, but it wasn’t like that at the beginning. His ‘Italian-ness’ was very bizarre to people. I wanted to show that the world he had moved into at the time was this very homogenous White Australia.
Franco is kind of laughed at sometimes, but then sometimes he’s laughed with as well. But the thing is, he is totally aware of it.
BD: I agree completely, he knows how he’s being received. Something I admire about Franco Cozzo is that, in my family, our post-war migrant ancestors did have to sort of suppress their Italian-ness and assimilate. Whereas Franco is doing these long, pure Italian spiels on prime-time television!
Madeleine: He was not ashamed of who he was at all! Like, there’s no keeping Franco cut.
My dad was born here. But Italian was his first language. When he went to primary school, he stopped speaking it. He didn’t feel comfortable speaking Italian, then he wouldn’t speak Italian at home anymore, either.
I think that we forget how strong the pressure to assimilate really was. And of course, the new migrants today are experiencing that all over again. The film is very much about Italian culture because Franco was Italian. But I do hope there’s a bit of a nod to the new non-European migrants who are often his current day customers.
BD: Absolutely, I think that the film highlights something of a through-line between migrant stories in Australia. Do you see yourself exploring migrant experiences in future works?
Madeleine: I think migration is a topic that’s kind of endless. I was comfortable doing it because I felt that I had this kind of unique perspective on it. Through the pop culture status of Franco Cozzo, and through this like, prism of taste and style and furniture. Through television and performance. And I’d happily tell a story about it again, but I think it would need to bring something new to the table.
BD: Of course. And last question: do you own any Franco Cozzo furniture yourself?
Madeleine: Ha! Alas, I live in a small apartment, and I don’t think I could fit a single piece in here! Another reason why it’s of a certain era is because it’s from another time when the suburban dream was really flourishing. People lived in certain types of houses where this furniture could fit.
I did think ‘could I fit a coffee table or something?’ but honestly, there’s no space. Maybe one day!
Our interview with Madeleine contains many more amazing insights and quotable moments that we couldn’t quite fit into one article. She’s a fascinating director who, in her debut feature, offers a unique and nuanced perspective of migrationism, Australian history, and the lavish lifestyle of Franco Cozzo.
You can catch Madeleine further discussing the creation of Palazzo Di Cozzo next Thursday, May 12th at the Brunswick Library!
Hope to see you there!