How ‘Il Padrino’ used Italian culture to reinvent the history of the mafia: NPR

Left to right, Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera, James Caan as Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone and Marlon Brando (1924 – 2004) as Don Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’, 1972. Bonasera asks Don Corleone to avenge the brutal rape of his daughter .

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Left to right, Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera, James Caan as Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone and Marlon Brando (1924 – 2004) as Don Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’, 1972. Bonasera asks Don Corleone to avenge the brutal rape of his daughter .

Silver Screen Collection / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The first time I saw it The GodfatherIt’s Don Corleone, he wasn’t in a cinema. He was on Live Saturday night.

John Belushi made a tremendous impression of Marlon Brando as Corleone, and he was playing the Don in a group therapy session with Elliot Gould as a therapist. Laraine Newman was dressed in a blonde wig and Valley Girl accent for the sketch SNLThe first season, dubbed “Godfather’s Therapy,” he told Corleone of Belushi, “please contact us, man!”

(One of my favorite lines from that sketch: “Now the feds are looking at me … investigating me. ASPCA is looking for me about this horse thing …”)

That was a measure of how much The Godfather it had already permeated pop culture in 1976. Even an 11-year-old black boy watching TV in Gary, Indiana, knew about the mob boss making offers to people they couldn’t turn down.

A few years later, when I saw the film, I was stabbed. Not only because the film offered an explicit look at the power and violence of gangster life – the scene where James Caan’s Sonny Corleone was punctured by dozens of bullets at a toll booth gave me nightmares for quite a while – but Why The Godfather it showed us a very specific family at a specific time in a very specific culture.


It was evident from the first line of the film. “I believe in America,” says Amerigo Bonasera, a bald gravedigger in postwar America who tells the story of an immigrant to work hard, try to stay out of trouble and build a life for his family. Until the American justice system disappoints him and he will have to seek help from a man whose power transcends any legal authority.

I didn’t know then, but The Godfather was defining a model for authenticity in film that would influence the careers of everyone from Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos‘from creator David Chase to Spike Lee and also, perhaps, to younger talents like Atlanta creator Donald Glover and Structure co-creator Ramy Youssef.

Fifty years ago, The Godfather helped prove that authenticity made a better movie. The fact that picking a big name in an epic movie wasn’t as important as picking the person who best plays the character.

And giving the audience the feeling of watching a mafia story rooted in the culture of Italian immigrants, which had a code imported from the old country, helped to humanize the characters and make us take care of them even more.

I had never met any Italians from New York or from the East Coast. But I felt I learned a little about the rhythms of their culture by watching The Godfather, even though the film sparked a debate over whether its portrayals of Italian Americans were harmful stereotypes.

Along the road, The Godfather created archetypes to tell stories about the mafia that helped inspire some of the best movies and TV shows of the modern age.

In search of innovation through authenticity

“We will take a picture that will be Sicilian all the way. You can smell the spaghetti.”

This is Robert Evans, who was in charge of production at Paramount Pictures in 1972, explaining in the film version of his memoirs The child remains in the picture because they hired Italian-American director Francis Ford Coppola to direct The Godfatherwith a mandate to bring a culture of authentic feeling to the film.

According to Evans, gangster films in the past had failed, in part, because the studios chose actors like Kirk Douglas, actors who didn’t seem the part or didn’t know the culture (Douglas, in fact, had starred in a bombshell in a movie. gangster for Paramount in 1968, The brotherhood, cited as the reason the studio hadn’t made a Mafia movie in years). Indeed, when Coppola, author Mario Puzo and producer Al Ruddy were working on the casting of the film, non-Italian actors such as Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal and Robert Redford were proposed as possibilities for the cast: a thought from the old woman. school of another era.

These days we take it for granted that Mafia movies and TV shows are full of Italian-American culture, made by Italian directors and actors. We saw Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci enter Those good guys† De Niro inside Petty roads; James Gandolfini at the helm of a whos who of Italian and Italian American actors in a TV show considered one of the best series ever made, The Sopranos.

There is a dynamic that occurs on TV and in movies, where more specific and culturally authentic stories can impact audiences in two ways. First, you know a subculture you may not know well, drawn to watching the kind of people you may never meet in real life reveal themselves in ways they probably never would in person. If you know the subculture, you identify with the story, assuming the narrators have the right details.

Secondly, there is always a human dimension that passes through that cultural specificity that anyone can relate to. John Singleton’s 1991 movie Guys and the hood tells an authentic story about young blacks battling gang violence and poverty in south central Los Angeles. But it’s also a coming-of-age story about young people choosing their own path in life and facing the consequences of their choices – something many people can understand.

For me, to watch The Godfather focused those two shivers. Seeing the bright glitz of Connie Corleone’s wedding contrasted with the dark backstage relationships of her father The Don, who had to consider the demands made at her daughter’s wedding. Hear faithful helper Clemenza discussing the correct way to make meatball pasta for a house full of family soldiers, hiding in the midst of a gang war. See the rituals of baptisms and marriages compared with the killings necessary to ensure the family’s success in crime.

The very specific story of a Mob family, juxtaposed with the classic tale of an elderly patriarch who wonders who will succeed him. And his horror of him when he realizes that the son who was his golden son – the one positioned to find legitimate success in the world outside their crime family – is the only one who can take his place. .

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in a 1999 advertising photo.

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Avoid stereotypes by creating authentic characters

As compelling as that story turned out, there were many groups who feared The Godfather it would simply amplify stereotypes about Italian immigrants and Italian Americans. Even before filming began, the project faced criticism from a group called the Italian American Civil Rights League, led by well-known mobster Joe Colombo.

(The offera limited series on Paramount + on the making of The Godfatherdetails how producer Ruddy brokered a truce with Colombo – played with frank impatience by Giovanni Ribisi – by agreeing to delete the word “Mafia” from the film’s script.)

Protests over the franchise have continued to the present day, with the Italian Institute of America criticizing the projections The Godfather: Part II at an Illinois theater in 2019, saying the film embraces the stereotypes about Italian crime that have existed in America for hundreds of years. On the other hand, author Tom Santopietro argues in his book The godfather effectthat the film trilogy has suppressed more stereotypes than it encouraged, crushing the idea of ​​Italians as ignorant and heavily accented simpleton.

I remember talking to a TV writer friend about issues like this years ago when similar series The cable And The Sopranos they were attracting complaints from groups with valid concerns about how the show might stereotype blacks or Italian Americans.

The TV writer told me then that creators’ best defense is to make sure their stories are centered around three-dimensional characters making decisions consistent with their perspectives, humanizing them. So, inside The Godfather, you are not watching a stereotypically violent mobster simply ordering someone to be killed; You’re watching Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone take out his brother-in-law who regularly beats up his sister – and colludes with a rival family.

The Godfather it also provides a textbook on how to elevate anti-heroic characters above villains. Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone is a man of strong values: he builds a network of “friends” with whom he exchanges favors. We don’t see him shaking shopkeepers for protection payments or breaking gambler’s legs to pay off debts.

Furthermore, by showing the public the signals often used to separate the anti-heroes from the villains, The Don opposes drug dealing and does not reflect the racism of the times. He is a leader of the rival mafia who declares that he does not mind allowing drug dealing in the neighborhoods where blacks live, because “they are animals anyway, so he lets them lose their souls”.

No wonder the enormous success of The Godfather – and his reformulation of a Mafia family as a clan facing Shakespearean dramas and epic challenges – reshaped the way Mafia movies were told. When The Sopranos rolled about 27 years later, creator David Chase was rejecting innovations The Godfather which have become tropes – revealing that his mafia boss Tony Soprano is a ruthless, womanizer, sometimes racist psychopath, despite all his talk of family values ​​and old-school loyalty.

Fifty years after its blockbuster debut, The Godfather It still casts a long shadow over the storytelling on TV and in the cinema, fueled by its marriage of the classic gangster story with a family drama, the immigrant’s journey and a lot of Italian culture.

It’s a film that reinvented how we all see the mafia, proving that cultural authenticity is often the most powerful tool any storyteller can use.