Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts on the concepts of connection and belonging and tribes. That got me thinking about the rituals, traditions and secrets that tie us to one another, and how unbreakable those bonds can often be. Which got me thinking about a whole different kind of tribe and my lifelong love of The Godfather.
Part of my passion for this epic film franchise is purely the product of my heritage. I not only married to a nice Italian boy, but had a father who was 100% Sicilian. In most Italian families, you’re either Italian OR Sicilian. In the old days, if you were a Northern Italian married to a Sicilian, it was usually considered a mixed marriage. Really.
My love affair with The Godfather has little to do with the dark side of the family business and everything to do with the first few minutes of the opening scene. Sitting in a darkened theater I was instantly transported back to my childhood as I recognized all the different member of an extended family as they celebrated at an enormous, elaborate wedding.
Most Italian-American families have much in common with the early Corleone story portrayed so perfectly in this Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece. Like most others, my own grandparents, aunts and uncles all sailed off to new lives in America when they were still young men and women.
So, while I can’t identify with the violent elements of the Corleone family – my parents didn’t stash guns in the kitchen cabinets – I can appreciate all the positive aspects of such loyalty and connection.
I still have wonderful memories of attending huge Italian weddings, wearing my black patent leather Mary Jane’s and dancing with my father, grandfather or uncle – which really meant standing on their shoes so they could sweep me all over the dance floor.
I remember large rectangular dining tables laden with homemade ravioli and freshly-caught marinated crabs that had been purchased at Fisherman’s Wharf earlier that morning.
I vividly recall the male elders of the family gathering to play poker after dinner in their loosened ties and suspenders (with jackets sitting in a neat little pile by the front door). Each of these beloved and gregarious uncles would have a small shot glass of brandy or whiskey right by their poker chips to sip as the cards were dealt.
My aunts – or Zia’s – looked much like the Italian women attending the Corleone Family weddings (in both the backyard of their American estate and the mountain village of Sicily). All the widowed aunts wore long black dresses with their hair brushed back and secured in a tight bun at the nape of the neck. It made no difference if they were 30 or 60; if you were a widow that was how you dressed. No discussion.
I was also lucky enough to have a grandfather (lovingly called “Nonno” by every grandchild) who looked exactly like Marlon Brando when he was tending his tomatoes in the backyard of the family mansion. Nonno Guido had the same plaid wool shirt and the exact same well-worn hat. He’d even do the little orange peel trick for me and my cousins – and it scared me just as much as the little boy in the movie scene.
So, when I try to put it into words, my love for the entire Godfather saga really comes down to one word: Famiglia. Family is important. Family is everything. Even when you have a difficult family dynamic, it’s still family.
In fact, one of the most memorable lines in the first film comes from Michael Corleone and conveys this sentiment perfectly: “Fredo, you’re my older brother and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.”
None of this means that we don’t often disagree on hundreds of different topics, from simple things like recipes to more complicated issues like politics. But being famiglia allows all of us to disagree and, in that process, still remember that we share more than just a last name. We share a history. We share a culture. We are a tribe.
Of course, any Godfather fan will also remember that Fredo plotted with another Mafia family to have Michael killed in the bedroom of his gorgeous Lake Tahoe estate – prompting Michael to schedule Fredo’s demise later in Godfather Part II. So, apparently my definition of famiglia is a bit different than that of movie mob dons.
The funny thing is that while I own the entire Godfather series on DVD, for some weird reason, I always enjoy watching it a hundred times more when it’s airing on HBO or some commercial-jammed cable channel. I guess it’s just knowing that I’m sharing the film with thousands of other fanatics at the same time. (If that isn’t tribal, what is?)