2,000 Years of This Sicilian Thing: Watching The Godfather Epic

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2,000 Years of This Sicilian Thing: Watching <i>The Godfather Epic</i>

The best mob stories ask: “How do I take care of me and mine?” How far are you willing to go to protect your own? In The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather Part II, the story of the Corleone family becomes the centerpiece of a deep meditation on family and power. Francis Ford Coppola answers: Ultimately, you will lose one in the vain pursuit of the other.

The massive seven-hour cut of Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), now available on HBO’s streaming services, prosecutes those questions during its daunting run-time better than the individual films originally did. While the title sounds like it belongs to an Internet parody, it is an academically apt description. The Godfather Epic—when I learned of it, I knew there was only one thing I could do: See if this edit in any way improves what I consider to be the best film essay ever made on the struggle of an immigrant family to integrate into the U.S.

So I begin: The Godfather Epic is a straightforward, chronological re-edit of the two films, incorporating some footage once left on the cutting room floor. Godfather buffs (which is to say, seemingly every straight, American male over 30) will know this means that the film opens on the flashbacks from The Godfather Part II set in turn-of-the-century Sicily and New York City during young Vito Andolini Corleone’s rise to power, continuing through the ’40s of The Godfather and ending in the late ’50s “present day,” back with The Godfather Part II.

The film holds up surprisingly well considering its gargantuan minute-count. Edits aren’t totally seamless, but they are painless. The greater story is remarkably consistent, and its broad themes carry through expertly.

But really, the only way to dissect the differences and discover if such an edit is a worthy experiment with such near-legendary films is to join me, minute by minute, through seven hours of Italian tragedy.

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Young Vito (played as a child by Oreste Baldini, an adult by Robert De Niro, and in middle age by Marlon Brando) has no control over his destiny. After his father and brother and mother are murdered in Sicily, he’s herded through Ellis Island, a number pinned on his shirt as he stares out the window at the Statue of Liberty. (The number, perhaps symbolic of how lucky he is to be in even this sad situation rather than dead, is 7.) This low point at the beginning of Vito’s journey is one of only maybe two scenes in the entire movie in which we see the character completely alone, sharing the screen with no one.

I have self-centered reasons for being enamored with this part. My mother and her parents were among some 10,000 Cuban refugees who immigrated to the United States in the wake of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. My mother tells me of waiting to get on a boat along with thousands of other desperate refugees, of waiting in the same kind of purgatory in which young Vito pauses until Christian missionaries acquainted with my grandfather “claimed” them and allowed them entry into the country.

Upon boarding, there was a problem: My grandmother wasn’t listed. It is impossible for me to imagine my Chinese grandfather and my Cuban grandmother (both dead now) with my grade-school-aged mother and aunt in tow, arguing with one another over whether my grandmother should send everyone ahead and try to use her Spanish heritage to escape later. It was only the discovery that she was listed under her maiden name that ensured the family made the voyage together.

In discussing the film, a friend mentioned that a relation’s grandparent passed through Ellis Island and lost contact with a brother. To this day, he says, the family has no idea what happened to that brother, just as I’ve grown up with no contact with vast stretches of my own extended family in China and Cuba. And so, I understand Vito in one crucial way: He knows that terrible outside forces are at work, forces that do not care what happens to families like his.

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We move on: Seventeen years after Vito (now portrayed by DeNiro) sits in that lonely little room, that terrible outside force has become the strutting small-time mobster Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), who steals Vito’s job and bullies his neighbors.

“Why does he bother other Italians?” Vito asks at one point.

From the perspective of the film, this is the real sin Fanucci commits, far more egregious than his vulgar arrogance. You’ll notice that later, when Vito climbs to the proverbial top, he curries favor among struggling Italian families instead of shaking them down for protection.

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For his lack of solidarity, Fanucci gets got. Vito stalks him over the rooftops of New York City and then ambushes him in a darkened stairwell. Cut together this way, the first hour of The Godfather Epic is a hard treatise on the loyalty and tribalism of criminality in those bygone days, set in the breathtakingly well-shot streets of crowded 1917 New York and then transitioning coherently to the well-oiled machine of the Corleone’s syndicate in the ’40s.

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The first hour is also the groundwork for the family saga at the center of the film, and a thesis on why Vito must build a fortress to shield his family from the callous world. Having murdered the shit out of Fanucci, Vito sits on the stoop of his house, cradling his infant son Michael as a neighbor serenades them with the “Godfather Waltz,” the leitmotif that will play whenever the Corleone family’s fortunes change for good or ill.

During this hour, Sicilian gangsters have slaughtered Vito’s family before uninterested civil servants on Ellis Island casually deprived him of his name. They (all forces, taken as one oppressive power) put him in a lonely little room, with only his own singing for company. Despite all of that, he makes a new family for himself, and destroys each threat to it.

These are the awful things we are forced to do, and this is whom we do them for.

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