I’ve never been entirely clear on what lies at the heart of the American obsession with organized crime. I mean, deeply buried in the American psyche there is a romantic attachment to a certain “the rules don’t apply to me” mentality, a sense that there’s something inherently good about flouting the system, perhaps especially where money is concerned. And perhaps that’s all it is. Whatever the case, we love a gangster story, and perhaps especially, we love the mafia.
Our Godfather is a documentary about the family of Tommaso Buscetta, a Sicilian “Man of Honor” who rolled over on Cosa Nostra and got hundreds of wiseguys indicted in the 1980s. He was the mafia’s most wanted man until his death from cancer. Eleven of his family members were murdered by the mob. Today, his wife and children are still living under assumed names in the United States.
As a piece of history, this film is pretty fascinating. As a work of art, it’s worthy of attention, if limited by some unusual constraints. Mark Franchetti and Andrew Meier, the investigative journalists who helmed the film, spent years tracking the Buscettas down with the help of the DEA (one pauses to wonder how these guys located them when Cosa Nostra failed to) and convincing Tommaso’s widow, Cristina, that it would be safe to speak on camera. The resulting 90-minute film pieces together archival footage of Tommaso, his family, and the trial in which he gave evidence against Cosa Nostra, and offers a look at what happens when someone breaks the code of Omerta.
Buscetta was not a misunderstood good guy, and the film doesn’t try to portray him as such. He was a mobster—a drug dealer, a killer, a criminal. He was brutal and arrogant. Also, he was a man who loved his family. When he was faced with never seeing them again he agreed to cooperate with an anti-Mafia judge in a sweeping trial against Sicilian organized crime. He entered U.S. witness protection after his 3,000 pages of confession were handed to prosecutors investigating the mafia’s stronghold in New York, aided by a young (and considerably less insane-sounding) Rudy Giuliani. Being in hiding was hard on Buscetta: A gregarious guy who craved attention, he had a hard time being confined to the house. He developed a roommate-like relationship with the guys assigned to guard him; there’s some classic Goodfellas-esque talk of Buscetta leading Sicilian cooking marathons and teaching the cops his famous puttanesca recipe.
Buscetta died in 2000, but no one in his family believes they will ever be safe from the mafia. His son Roberto doesn’t even let the filmmakers show his entire face—wife Cristina and daughter Lisa are more forthcoming, though both acknowledge there are still people who’d be perfectly happy to take them out. On balance, of course, there is not a lot of penetrating detail they can provide without endangering themselves, so anyone looking to this film for a deep dive on what witness protection is like are going to hit a wall there. The combined anecdotal accounts of Buscetta’s surviving family members and the archival footage and statements from Buscetta’s lengthy confession do provide a very interesting account of Buscetta’s life and that of his family, as well as a candid glimpse at the inner workings of Cosa Nostra at the height of its power, so for anyone interested in the workings of organized crime (and to a limited extent, the mentalities of people who turn to it), Our Godfather is a useful look at a subject that is frequently, and in general wrongly, romanticized.
Directors: Mark Franchetti, Andrew Meier
Release Date: Available now on iTunes; coming to Netflix this fall
Amy Glynn writes.