Lessons of "The Godfather": It's not personal

Posted: August 03, 2012

The other night, I was flipping through the channels and saw that A&E was running "Mob Week" and that the inaugural film was "The Godfather." I love that movie, and don't know anyone who doesn't at least think it's a cinematic masterpiece.

Of course, growing up in an Italian family (my Irish relatives were mostly AWOL during my formative years, so I am Italian by default,) there was always this vague sense that we weren't supposed to really like Coppola's capolavoro. In medigan company, we were supposed to say all the right things about how the acting was superb, the music was exquisite and the screenplay was a masterful adaptation of Mario Puzo's book.

But then we went back home and complained, over Stella D'oro and coffee, about how the movie made us look really bad because it gave the impression that all Italians had at least one mobster/slutty bridesmaid/Al Martino in their closet. At least, that's what happened in a lot of Italian families I knew. Maybe it was because I'm a half-breed and my last name didn't give a hint of exactly which old country I came from, but it seemed to me that we Flowers were fairly blasé about so-called ethnic slurs.

That's why I take it with a grain of salt whenever I hear about how much damage these negative images do to a particular culture. Clearly, there are cases in which certain stereotypes or words are so hurtful that society has rightly decided to retire them from normal conversation. It's not censorship to ban the ‘n' word, primarily because it was so often used by men with ropes and white sheets. And it's pretty lame that some in the black community think that they're still entitled to use it against each other and "reinvent" the meaning by changing the spelling. All they're doing is stomping on the graves of the ancestors.

Similarly, it makes me cringe when my own paesani choose to call a homemade chianti "dago red," because there's absolutely no redeeming value in perpetuating a slur that our grandparents heard on a regular basis, and not always from strangers.

But do I get my, um, Irish up when someone tells me "Jersey Shore" is cool? Does it make my blood boil like Bolognese on a Sunday afternoon if a non-Italian thinks that the "Housewives of New Jersey" are my role models? Do I descend into Rigoletto-like rage at seeing the "Jerseylicious" crew of beauty experts (and I use both of those terms loosely) try to define Italian style? (As an aside, North Jersey is the worst thing to happen to Italians since General Patton.)

No, I do not. During a commercial in the film, I posted the following on Facebook: "I know it's wrong. I know it's an unfair stereotype. I know it glorifies brutality, machismo and a warped sense of honor. But don't hate me for loving ‘The Godfather,' my Italian friends and famiglia...a little bit of profanity, and a little bit of poetry, is good for my soul (as long as it's just onscreen...)."

Many of the people who commented on that post agreed that the movie was a masterpiece, and some rated it as the greatest film of all time. I'd personally go with "To Kill A Mockingbird," but there's no question that "The Godfather," I and II, were defining moments in cinematic history. If you look at it just from that perspective, you have to wonder what the fuss is all about.

Of course, the "Godfather" saga is not just a movie. It has transcended the confines of cinema and entered into our even broader cultural consciousness, so I am sympathetic to posters, as is my dear friend Dan, who believe that the negative depictions in the film outweigh the artistic excellence. I'm also sensitive to the concerns of those who think that any time a culture is represented in a less than favorable way, it makes it that much harder to move beyond the stereotypes when something good happens. It's not as if the first thing that came to mind when Antonin Scalia was appointed to the Supremes was "I wonder how he is with piano wire," but I understand the squeamishness.

Still, we need to move beyond what I think is a hypersensitivity on all sides, something that has contributed to a sterile and politically correct posture with those outside our ethnic or cultural group. That doesn't mean I'm in favor of hurting people unnecessarily, but this excessive concern with bruised egos and bullying and not giving offense has actually put walls between us that didn't need to exist in the first place. Respect, as any upstanding Mafioso knows, is an important part of interpersonal relationships. But let's leave the hypersensitivity behind. And, oh yeah, take the cannoli.

Christine Flowers is a lawyer. Send email to cflowers1961@gmail.com and read her blog at philly.com/FlowersShow.

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