Still married to the Mob

The Sopranos is the greatest piece of popular art since, well, The Godfather. Why do we get such a kick out of these portraits of Italian-American family life?

The second season of The Sopranos was offered across the jittery nation called US like some sweeping, rescuing clarity. You see, part of the stress in American life is always being under the shadow of such potentially crushing (or transporting), but ungraspable things as the economy, the pursuit of happiness, the confidence factor and the market. That's why we turned with relief (as well as anticipation) to the return of that oddly shy brute, Tony Soprano. He's a complicated guy, but he has a simple way of settling things.

The second season of The Sopranos was offered across the jittery nation called US like some sweeping, rescuing clarity. You see, part of the stress in American life is always being under the shadow of such potentially crushing (or transporting), but ungraspable things as the economy, the pursuit of happiness, the confidence factor and the market. That's why we turned with relief (as well as anticipation) to the return of that oddly shy brute, Tony Soprano. He's a complicated guy, but he has a simple way of settling things.

Home Box Office (HBO) knew it had a winner, no matter that the show was largely ignored at last year's Emmy awards. That was simply the tag end of network imperialism, scared at losing its audience and resentful that a cable channel (HBO) had come up with the show some cultural commentators have called the greatest piece of popular art in the last 25 years. Which must mean since The Godfather. Next year's Emmys - you can go to the bank on it. The Sopranos rules.

Now, don't worry, or put the paper down: I'm not going to say too much about what happens in the second series (beyond this choice item, that Tony's flustered shrink - so well played by Lorraine Bracco - herself needs a shrink: and he will be played by Peter Bogdanovich, not just a good movie director, but one of the world's great mimics).

No, what I want to talk about is why we get such a kick out of these portraits of Italian family life. Correction: the kind of Italian family life that afflicts a portion of the noble and industrious Italian people so tiny that it is statistically unobservable.

From the moment I started watching the Godfather films I knew that something profound, secret and unsettling was at work. It was clear in The Godfather, and naked in Godfather Part II that Michael Corleone (the Al Pacino character) was evil incarnate, colder than a lizard, and no fun. Here is a guy who ascends to one of the pinnacles of power - not just leadership of organized crime, but a quasi-presidential authority - and power is all he's interested in. He doesn't drink, or eat the pizza or the cannoli. He doesn't like to listen to Sinatra or Verdi. He doesn't study stolen paintings in his inner sanctum. Though he has shut the door on his wife, he doesn't have an interest in bimbo sex. He doesn't buy a sports team or a movie studio. He doesn't have a dog or do crosswords. All Michael does is sit in a dark room, feeling the faraway tremble of the machinery working and knowing he's in charge.

You can claim - and I would back you - that the first two parts of the Godfather films are superbly made by Francis Coppola, flawlessly acted, and so on. You can say that both are masterpieces of suspense in which we wonder whether the Corleones can survive, and then see them offing their enemies the way Pete Sampras clears the Centre Court. But don't rule out this cunning play on our feelings: that we want to belong to this brave, resourceful family that runs the world, that we want to sit down with the heroes and share in the pasta and the meat sauce (with a good country wine), that we don't mind too much if the women are excluded from serious talk, and, sure, we'll serve evil if it means being part of the gang. The nostra in cosa nostra can bring tears to our cruel eyes.

If you loved those two films, and if you're truly shocked by what I just said, maybe one of us needs a shrink - or you haven't worked out all the tangling ways fantasy can get hold of you. For myself, I know that while Michael is a marble statue to anhedonia (the anti-pleasure principle), I review these films every year in a renewal of pleasure that comes from the brotherhood, the knight-like obligation to duty, the efficiency in execution, and service in the cause of order - that last religion. It's a family feeling a lot of men dream of - just as many revel in the prospect that enemies or offences could be rebuked by dispatching a business-like operative. "Tom," says Michael at one point, "if we've learned anything it is that we can kill anyone".

I told you that the heart of this attraction is dark and disturbing. But I cannot see how the Godfathers offer less than this inviting fantasy. And the appeal of The Sopranos needs to be read in the same way.

In the early Seventies, the Godfather films were so striking that everyone assumed they were authentic. And within the Corleone saga, there was much about uneducated Sicilian immigrants and family stalwarts like Clemenza, Tessio and Frankie Pentangeli, Italians who talked Italian, threw in the oregano, and chuckled over the way Michael had been to Dartmouth, an Ivy League school, and had a degree. In hindsight, you can see that Michael built an élite around him - Tom Hagen, Al Neri - time-and-motion rationalists. One of the many things missing from Godfather III is the computerised management style for which Michael was trained, and the way the Mob has gone legitimate in Silicon Valley and Vegas.

There was a reaction against that élitism. The wiretaps on John Gotti showed that real mobsters were scruffy lowlifes who couldn't parse a sentence or read a company report. Scorsese's Goodfellas was a move towards stressing the working-class, uneducated background of most made men. And The Sopranos has gone that way and into the actual suburban anonymity of New Jersey where the family operates. No one there has much recollection of having been to school, and when Tony took his teenage daughter on a tour of New England colleges, lo and behold, he spied an old traitor, an informer who had gone into hiding. So while the kid was interviewing, Tony evened the old score - with his bare hands. And then the kid wanted to know, "Daddy, are we in the Mafia?" - not as if that's so bad; but if we are, can I have a Mercedes?

The real spice in The Sopranos is that women are getting a chance to talk, and act. In the world of the Corleones, Momma was a madonna without a mind. Kay, Michael's wife, had to be excluded. Women served the male dream. And in Godfather Part III, where Coppola hardly knew what to do, he missed the begging opportunity of Connie (Talia Shire - his actual sister), the sister whose hair had gone iron grey, and who had learned enough from watching to be Lucretia Borgia. Coppola wasn't supple enough to go with that story, even though he pushed his own daughter, Sophia, into the cast when Winona Ryder dropped out.

But in The Sopranos what catches the everyday untidiness of family life is the women - Tony's wife (who nearly had a thing for her priest), the daughter, and Nancy Marchand's Lear-like mother who is set to be the opponent Tony dreads. "She's dead for me," he says, in the second series. Watch out, there's another woman coming - I know, I said I wouldn't tell you; I lied - his sister from Seattle. I'm betting that she and the mother are going to plot against Tony. In which case, don't forget the title - they could be after Tony's balls. And James Gandolfini is no Michael. He's not that sharp or cold. He could be taken. It's not a million miles from real family dilemmas where the mother in a nursing home still rules the roost - through guilt, exploited weakness, changing her will and that old lever called our need. Cosa nostra, indeed. More like cosa chaos - but we all know that family story.

The first series of 'The Sopranos' is currently being rebroadcast on Channel 4 on Thursdays at midnight. The second series will be broadcast in the autumn

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