Godfather, Sopranos, and Suburra: Blood On Rome

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Melbourne, Australia

Suburra continues the transformation of Gangsters that began in The Godfather (1972) .

The year 2020 saw the release of The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, which is a re-editing of The Godfather Part III, originally released in 1990. The third part of the Godfather trilogy was always the most maligned of the Godfather set of films. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) are well entrenched in the cinematic canon, but the third suffered in comparison. Director Ford Coppola has re-edited the film with a new beginning and end. Critics have said it is a modest improvement on the previous version. Its release almost certainly denotes the final chapter of the most influential and important film series of the 20th Century.

With less fanfare, the year also saw the end of the Italian TV series Suburra: Blood on Rome (2017-2020), which concluded its run with a climactic shoot-out. While radically different visions of organized crime, both Suburra and The Godfather upended a long-held tradition in Hollywood films, where criminals tended to be brought to justice in the last reel. Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) were remotely based on figures such as Al Capone of the Prohibition era. Acting under the production code, all of them suffered the consequences of their law-breaking. However, audiences in the Depression still identified with their willingness to go outside the traditional system’s bounds to make a living. [1] The films of this era saw the gangsters and the law in direct opposition.

In the 1970s, with the release of the Valachi papers, and the realization of the Mafia’s workings, this formula underwent a radical shift, with the gangster now a respected member of society. Indeed, the way the gangster image has evolved reflects how we have moved as a society. In The Godfather, the Don’s immediate successor Santino Corleone is violent on occasion. Santino nearly beats his brother-in-law to death for striking his sister. He is much closer to the cinematic psychopaths of the 1930s, and he is passed his use-by date.

Vito Corleone is a controlled and intelligent killer. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The other Dons: Vito and Michael, kill for business or honour, as do their opponents. Santino is not seen as “a good Don” because he fights with a violent passion. He needed a practical approach as declared by their enemy Sollozo, the Turk. Sollozo told the Corleone family lawyer Tom Hagen: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman; blood is a big expense”. Neither of the other Corleone dons is likely to lash out for no reason at all or to even respond to a simple provocation. Murders are simply cold and calculated efforts to achieve practical goals.   Michael shoots the Turk and his police captain bodyguard to protect the family and to save his father. From that point on, Michael certainly uses his newly attained power to murder opponents or traitors, but always for “business” reasons.

Director Martin Scorsese took some elements of The Godfather and made it his own. His gangster world is lower-middle-class, and it has a violent edge. However, being a gangster is also fun. Brian Phillips has argued that Goodfellas (1990) is the bridge between The Godfather and the crime families that emerged in the TV series Sopranos. “Goodfellas is far more than a transitional film, but it does link the past and the future in some important ways. If it’s true that every great work of art ends one genre and founds another, then Goodfellas could be seen as the culmination of the tradition represented by The Godfather and as the vital link between the New Hollywood cinema of the ’70s and what we now think of as the golden age of TV.” [2]

Building on the world created by the Goodfellas, the TV series The Sopranos (1999 to 2007) focused on a more middle-class setting in New Jersey. While Michael Corleone strived for upper-class respectability, Tony Soprano has no such pretensions. As a physically imposing man, Tony Soprano used his stature and threats of violence to run a criminal enterprise. At best, Tony Soprano barely manages to keep his modest middle-class facade intact – needing some psychological support to do so. The Sopranos has no intersection with the political world, other than some links to the union movement. Unlike the Corleones who appear untroubled by the police or government, Tony Soprano and his group appeared doomed to either death or imprisonment. The Sopranos stripped away any sophistication or style from the image of gangsters.

With the end of the Sopranos in 2007, there seemed to be no likely successor to the organized crime family. However, the arrival of internationally based streaming services in the 2010s created an incinerator-like demand for high-quality TV shows. Countries outside the United States have started to fill the void. The clear successor to the Sopranos was Suburra: Blood on Rome – and to a lesser extent Gomorrah. Previously, shows such as Suburra: Blood on Rome would have played in Italy and a few foreign language television stations. With streaming services and the strong demand for content, the show is now shown in 190 countries. While the United States’ dominance in world culture is still strong, it is certainly being eroded by the new technologies that give access to programs worldwide – and we are starting to see and hear new voices.  

In the world of Suburra: Blood on Rome, all are corrupt, from the Vatican, through all government levels to the streets – no one is safe, and no one is clean. Suburra: Blood on Rome began life as a 2013 novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo. The book was based on a 2015 Italian neo-noir crime film directed by Stefano Sollima, which the TV series then reworked. Despite its Italian origins, Suburra: Blood on Rome owes a great deal to The Sopranos in taking a similar path of sending the gangster genre down market. The lead character in Suburra: Blood on Rome is Aureliano Adami, from a gang from Ostia – a port near Rome.  Son of the chief, Adami is a gang member who appears to have no interest in upper class or even middle-class respectability. He will kill on impulse and exacts savage revenge on anyone who crosses him. In one scene, Adami beats a man to a pulp and then shoots him – he makes Santino Corleone look restrained.

Even so, Adami is a charismatic leader, and, with his allies, they challenge the gangster hierarchy of Rome. In 2020, our gangster figures have moved far away from Michael Corleone, whose murders were “strictly business,” to figures who murder for revenge – or simply because they are just in the way. Other changes are evident in the projection of power in the key actors. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a man whose rage is tightly controlled, and he acts after thinking things through. Tony Soprano is an intelligent thug who rules with cunning and violence – he is no planner. Aureliano Adami is just a scary human being with a possible death wish.

As the gangster genre continues to move along, it has become more violent and continues to set out in different directions.In the 1970s, The Godfather was seen as a commentary on the Nixon administration with its conservative façade and criminal underpinnings. When the Watergate scandal derailed Nixon, it also led to a toxic loss of confidence in the government’s honesty and integrity. As time has progressed, the cultural myths about gangsters have become more violent, and the government appears to be ineffectual in helping people. In the Trump era, that loss of confidence has ebbed further.[3] In Suburra: Blood on Rome, the government is now in alliance with the gangsters, and it is hard to see where one begins and one ends. In The Godfather, there are references to political connections, where Vito Corleone has a strong influence. When a Senator threatens the Corleones, Michael looks blankly and says: “Senator, we are all part of the same hypocrisy.” Suburra takes that idea to another level. Close to 50 years down the track, we can barely say who is worse: the gangster or the government. Yet with all the evolution of style, the end is a shoot out is straight out of the 1930s. Despite Aureliano Adami’s clear psychotic behaviour in Suburra: Blood on Rome, he has some sense of honor, but the central politician is a repulsive character. The politician gets away with it.

[1] Andrew Bergman, We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. Chicago: Elephant, 1992, 3 – 17.

[2]  Brian Phillips, “How ‘Goodfellas’ Serves As the Bridge Between ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sopranos’,” The Ringer, 17 September 2020, accessed at https://www.theringer.com/movies/2020/9/17/21440866/goodfellas-martin-scorsese-the-godfather-the-sopranos, on 12 December 2020.

[3] Among many surveys see OECD survey, Trust in Government, https://www.oecd.org/gov/trust-in-government.htm.

The Godfather in the time of Trump

The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

The Godfather was released on 24 March 1972, and it has become one of the iconic films of the twentieth century. It is often voted in the top ten films of all time. Expressions such as “Make him an offer he cannot refuse,” are common place. Even the adlibbed line such as “don’t forget the cannoli” is now on T-shirts. The fascination with the series shows no sign of diminishing, with even the weakest of the sequels, Godfather part III, to be re-edited with new ending.[1]

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, which was never more than an enjoyable read, director Frances Ford Coppola managed to create one of the great family sagas of all time. It combined the gangster film with distinct resonances of the power struggles of the Borgias – who even get a mention in Godfather Part III. At times, Coppola also looks at reworking Shakespeare’s King Lear. Overall, he is remodelling some of the great family dynasty epics. Can it be that one of the most successful TV shows in British Television History was I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.”

I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.” Poster in author’s collection

The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. He says: I believe in America. America has made my fortune, and I raised my daughter in the American fashion.” Right from the start, there is a clear distinction between traditional values and the Corleone family. The legal system – the tool of the moneyed white classes – had failed the Italian community, “for justice, you need to go to Don Corleone. We never see what happens to the young men, but we can safely assume it is not pleasant. (In the book, they are beaten with professional restraint – they are not murdered.)

Filmed in glorious rich colors by Vittorio Storaro, the film takes its time to introduce its cast through a favors session with Don Corleone and then an extensive wedding scene. The camera shows little sections of each of the major characters, giving an idea of each character. The wedding is a formal Italian family wedding, but the undertones are there from the beginning. The wedding gives way to full scale intimidation of a Hollywood producer who will not yield to a small Corleone request. The film switches gear and we realise that these ‘salt of the earth’ Italians can and will flick any violent switch to get what they want.

Marlon Brando revived a stagnant film career with his performance as Don Corleone. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The Godfather was produced when the Pentagon papers were being released, and massive protests against the Vietnam War were being held across the United States. The period reflected the breaking of trust between the US Government and the American people. The Pentagon Papers detailed the history of the United States’ political and military involvement in IndoChina from 1945 to 1967. The papers had demonstrated, among other things, that the various administrations misrepresented the situation in Vietnam to the American people.

The initial context of the film has been lost over the passage of time. The original Godfather was released at the time of the Nixon administration, particularly when the Watergate scandal was about to reach its conclusion. From 1972 to 1974, the United States had been preoccupied with the Watergate scandal, which led to the impeachment process of President Nixon, eventually forcing his resignation. In many ways, the Nixon administration reflected the world of the Corleone’s.  On the surface, it spoke of traditional virtues such as family, honor and tradition, while underneath, it was unlawful. Whatever trust remained, was lost when the Watergate scandal broke, and it has never been recovered.

The successful leader is a gangster. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

For a new generation, the Trump administration has provided some renewed interest in the film. One academic has even managed to draw some weak links between the Trump Administration and The Godfather. [2]  Certainly cartoonists. T-shirt designers  and political commentators have not shied away from the analogy.[3]

Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote: “for the Corleones, the land of opportunity is America the Ugly, in which almost everyone who is not Sicilian or, more narrowly, not a Corleone, is a potential enemy. Mr. Coppola captures this feeling of remoteness through the physical look of place and period, and through the narrative’s point of view. “The Godfather” seems to take place entirely inside a huge smoky plastic dome, through which the Corleone’s see our real world only dimly.”

The Trump administration certainly does contain a lot of relatives. The Republican National Congress demonstrated their the family connections. The Trumps do convey a them against the world attitude.

Trump also rode a wave of disquiet at elites to get to the White House. The disquiet may have begun with the left, but it has spread to the right. Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp” of American politics, resonated with a disaffected electorate. His election represented a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and the American presidency. The disquiet which The Godfather reflected in 1972 is now the political mainstream.

[1] https://sanduskyregister.com/news/276239/godfather-part-iii-gets-new-ending/

[2] https://theconversation.com/whos-who-in-the-godfather-version-of-trumps-white-house-81051.  

[3] https://www.ibtimes.com/trump-godfather-cnns-cooper-compares-ukraine-phone-call-mafia-movie-2833573.