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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Sauce Recruitment: Programme Sales Executive - Independent Distributor

£25000 - £28000 per annum + circa 28K + 20% bonus opportunity: Sauce Recruitme...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Are you an ambitious, money mot...

Guru Careers: Investment Writer / Stock Picker

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A freelance Investment Writer / Stock Picker ...

Guru Careers: PPC Account Executive / Paid Search Executive

£20 - 24K + Benefits: Guru Careers: An enthusiastic PPC Account / Paid Search ...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us