Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Or, A Love Letter to The Godfather

me, about to see The Godfather
Picture this scene: five-year-old me in pigtails and a frilly pink dress (dubbed the birthday cake dress due to it's resemblance to, well, a birthday cake), sprawled contentedly on the living room floor, playing with my barbie dolls. We're having a tea party, it's great, I'm doing all the voices and splitting up the imaginary cake into equal portions because that's what my mom does in real life. Then my Dad thunders in with a non-alcoholic beer and plate of pasta, takes up residence on the couch, and says, "Jeanne Joe, it's time you understood where you come from."

And how, you might wonder, does my Dad proceed to educate me about my origins? Fear not, it's not a disturbingly early talk about the birds and the bees. Actually it's somewhat more disturbing, in a totally different way, while also being completely endearing and one of my favorite memories of my Dad when I was little. What he does to help me understand where I come from is put a tape in the VCR.

Brace yourself. That tape is The Godfather.

Now, I'm not sure that going to therapy for the rest of my life would ever fully unwind the twisty ball of mental, emotional, and spiritual ramifications from this experience. Piecing together "where you come from" with a) the Mafia and b) one of the greatest movies of all time was so overwhelming that it left me at first just wondering if the film was where my Dad got the idea to use orange rinds to make toy scary teeth. My Dad was always using orange rinds to make toy scary teeth. Then I pushed past that thought and started wondering about the bigger question of whether my Dad was not REALLY a retired bus driver and poker player. We did have an awful lot of antique furniture, and some nice paintings...and I knew my great-grandmother had ran away from her family in Sicily for some reason...but, that's neither here nor there. What's important is that I was five. And that I've proven, later in life, that my Dad really is a retired bus driver and not a wise guy.

Following the logical chain of Luca Brasi's strangulation in the St. George hotel to the mattresses, thinking about what's so progressive about having a German Conciglieri, or trying to understand why the baker wouldn't take his daughter's rape case to the police are things your average five year old probably hasn't pondered. But I sure did. After the tape finished rolling and I woke up my Dad (no reflection on the film), my main question was..."Daddy, what's wrong with Fredo?"But right after that, my question was, "So why is loyalty and silence so important to us?"

what's his DEAL!?!
I think of my early exposure to The Godfather and it's presentation as "my culture" as one of the chief things that distinguishes my brain from other peoples' brains - because I took it utterly seriously. My Dad did everything in his power to help me believe this separation and to solemnly receive life lessons from it. Maybe because I grew up so far away from my other Italian relatives, Dad was determined to instill in me a sense of our history, my people, our characteristics, and our values. He wanted me to understand the world he grew up around back in Brooklyn and where certain feelings and impulses might come from. The Godfather was one of his favorite tools. To this day, whilst giving me his fatherly wisdom, he'll say things like, "That's Godfather 101, kid, don't forget it." I even read and underlined the novel by Mario Puzo, searching for my and my Dad's reflections in the stories of my people.

The only problem is...I'm not in the mafia...so...

You can probably see my problem. Going through life believing I'm a part of The Godfather has been problematic in diverse amusing and surprising ways. Mostly, applying the law of omerta has been confusing for me. Omerta is the code of silence, of loyalty, of non-cooperation with outsiders. It's why you go to jail for a crime you didn't commit rather than ratting out someone else. It's why Michael calmly renounced Satan, becoming godfather to his sister's kids, whilst arranging to have her husband whacked. It all makes logical sense on the streets, BUT, how am I supposed to do it without going crazy? Obviously cops are the enemy, but the whole "Don't let anyone outside the family know what you're thinking" thing can really only be applied in my case to EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD. Right? So...no one can be trusted. That's the only possible way to do it...since I'm not in the mafia...

I love them so much.

I say all of this to explain the mistrustful mental underpinnings I've recently begun to become aware of in myself. Omerta is somewhat damaging to artistic honesty and interpersonal openness. If you trust no one and never break a personal code of silence...how can you really tell good stories? Or even trust yourself? Or, beyond that, if I continue to go through life with this unspoken assumption of omerta, imagining myself in some operatic conclusion of ancient Sicilian origins, misapplying it willy nilly to everyone I meet and automatically regarding the universe with mistrust, how can I really experience joy? Or faith? Or freedom? Or learn to receive?

Don't get me wrong here - I'm not kicking out The Godfather from my personal culture. It's in my blood and (by now) my subconscious. It's life lessons are ENDLESS and beautiful. From "Leave the gun, take the canoli" to "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse," there are priceless gems and moments of self-recognition for any Italian or cool person of any kind. It illustrates for me ways of understanding the wrenching pain of betrayal, the justice of long-term consequences, the randomness and senselessness of violence, the power of family, the undying beauty of true love. I will always make meatballs when I am sad and give the death-stare to anyone who buys pre-canned tomato sauce. What I hope to surpass, though, in my personal and professional walk, is omerta. I'm determined to learn to open my heart and learn to trust. To give people the benefit of the doubt once in a while. (Once, though, probably not twice.) I'm determined to unlearn thinking of the universe as a hostile enemy and regard it as a platform for blessing. After all, I'm not in the mafia or the 1950s. I don't have to be silent.

my big fat Italian movie family
Learning to share life with others has been an amazing journey for me and has really magnified my life recently - it's kept me encouraged and plugged in as an actor, helped me to see myself and others more clearly, and kept me growing as a person. Also, it's helped me realize just how powerful, formative, and lasting the effect of excellent filmmaking can be. Here I am, still reacting to The Godfather, all these years later. I love that a film could become a part of my culture, that a film could be a way for my Dad to communicate with me, that a film could inspire a post from me to you. It's magic. Thanks for letting me share so much with all of you, gentle readers, through this blog!

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