by Fabrizio Fiorenzano
“Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking!” or “A man that doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” These sentences, spoken by the hoarse voice of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), even after all these years are still stuck in my mind since having seen one of the greatest masterpieces in cinema history: The Godfather (1971), an adaptation of the classic novel by Mario Puzo.
Expressions that imply and summarize a time-honoured Mafia philosophy, belonging to an old-fashioned Sicily.
The term “family” was used to identify the so-called primary cell, that is to say a hierarchic structure on a territorial basis which controlled its own illegal business in a city area or on an entire town. But Mafia binds towards the real family were just as strong, and it was important for a man to fully play his own role of householder to protect his wife and children.
Its members have never used, nor do they use today, the word “mafia,” a literary term that refers in a broad sense to any criminal organization; they use the term “Cosa Nostra,” to identify only the Sicilian Mafia, the most powerful criminal organization in the world.
Some important scenes of that movie, which have become part of cinema history, were indeed skillfully set in Sicily.
Among the sites elected by Francis Ford Coppola for his work, there are some that remind us of the old and evocative landscapes that were the background of mafia wars and its ancestral grip on the region: Forza d’Agrò, Savoca, Fiumefreddo, but also Taormina and others.
Aside from Taormina, whose fame is not new to us, we are talking about evocative sites of ancient spirit that very few know. Forza D’Agrò and Savoca are indeed two beautiful artistic towns with several interesting things worth seeing and welcoming restaurants where you can taste good local Sicilian food.
Originally Paramount wanted to shoot the movie in Corleone, but that turned out to be impossible because apparently the real mafia asked the company for a huge kickback. It was Saro Urzì, the great actor from Catania who played the owner of Bar Vitelli in the movie, who told Francis Ford Coppola he knew a place very similar to Corleone that would have been perfect. That place was Savoca.
Savoca stands on a hill of 300 meters and was founded in 1139 by Ruggero II. Nature has endowed it with a stunning landscape from where you can admire part of the Ionic coast, up to Calabria. The village is now almost deserted, the population having diminished in the last few years due to growing youth emigration.
Forza d’Agrò, not far from Savoca, is one of the most beautiful sites I ever seen in Sicily. Situated 400 meters above sea level, its population doesn’t exceed a few hundred people.
Thanks to its geographic position, it was often used as a safe port by pirates and smugglers.
The old hamlet of Quartarello offers a surreal sight with its small shabby houses leant one against the other, among which very steep stone stairs and tiny alleys are inserted in a labyrinthine way.
Among the amenities there is the Norman castle, on top of which in 1876 a cemetery was established. The peculiarity of the graves is their unevenness.
Some of them are even open, and in one the bony remains of a little girl, who died at the end of the nineteenth century, are still visible.
Scenes from “The Godfather”
In Savoca the building that towers above all the others is San Nicolò’s Church, also known as Santa Lucia’s. This cultic site is what made the village known in the first place, being the background for some famous shots in The Godfather.
Michael Corleone, (Al Pacino), after having killed the mafia boss who had tried to kill his father, finds shelter in Sicily; here, while having a walk with two escorts, he meets a beautiful local girl (Apollonia), falls in love at first sight and decides to get married. The three men stop at Vitelli’s, a bar in the centre of Savoca, still open today, finding out that the owner is Apollonia’s father.
The film implies that the village is Corleone, but actually Pacino is walking through Savoca’s narrow streets.
The real owner of Bar Vitelli is Mrs. Maria d’Arrigo, an old woman who remembers with affection the year 1971, when the small village was invaded by Paramount vehicles. She says that Pacino loved her sorbets and spent a lot of time at the counter. When the three Mafiosi get to her bar in the movie, she was inside the venue. Before 1971 the bar had no name, but the film company wanted it to be called “Vitelli’s.” Since then, the name hasn’t changed. Maria says that sometimes she still receives Coppola’s greetings from America. Two years ago she received a gift from Al Pacino: a beautiful pen with a red and black heart pattern on it, a token of the actor’s affection for Maria. The inside of the bar is like a little museum: a display of old mementos and memorabilia from the movie. Maria is very jealous and fond of her little but precious treasure. In the middle of the entrance hall are still in relief the chairs where Pacino and the two bodyguards sat down in the movie; the walls are covered with pictures and articles about the film, that she shows me proudly.
In front of the bar there is a little square, now with trees and a modern surface. At the time of the film, it was empty and they shot the reception scene for Michael and Apollonia’s wedding.
Still in Savoca other scenes were shot, for example the wedding scene. The couple gets out of San Nicolò’s Church and walks along the street that leads to Vitelli’s. Ahead of the newly-weds are the town band and the two bodyguards with “lupara” (sawn-off shotgun). In the 70s that part of the way was dusty and today, after 40 years, it hasn’t changed much, a part from the majolica surface. In some streets of the village pictures from the film are displayed and local people who took part in it are singled out.
Every day, thanks mainly to the Vitelli’s, six or seven buses of tourists get to Savoca to visit this typical Sicilian town. Other scenes were shot in Forza D’Agrò. In The Godfather, in the middle of the night two Mafiosi wander through the village shouting and warning the people not to protect a child (young Vito Corleone) who has escaped after having threatened the town boss who killed his father.
In The Godfather – Part 3, Al Pacino shows Diane Keaton the house where his father was born. The street is called Via Roma but today the doorway of the house is different because the building has just been completely restored, although still faithful to the original design.
Diane Keaton and Al Pacino are then attracted by some music coming from Santissima Annunziata Church, a few meters from Via Roma, where a wedding is being celebrated.
Another long shot is set in the yard of another close church, Santissima Trinità, where the couple watch a Sicilian puppet show and where a wedding reception is held. The palm trees in the piazza are still the same.
Robert de Niro appears in front of Santissima Annunziata’s in The Godfather – Part II: he and his wife are talking to a priest after the service.
However, some of the most significant scenes set in Sicily were shot in Fiumefreddo, in the eighteenth-century estate called “Castello degli schiavi” (Slave Castle). This marvellous house is owned by the Sicilian Baron Franco Platania. Cinematographically speaking, it was first discovered in 1968 by director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who used it as a set for his film L’orgia. Then, in 1971, 1974 and 1990, Coppola shot there some very important scenes of The Godfather trilogy.
It’s not easy to see the house from the street, but once in, you get struck by its beauty. When I reach the house, Baron Platania, who allowed me to visit, welcomes me and tells me about the time the cast were hosted in his house. He remembers De Niro’s sympathy, Keaton’s kindness, and also Pacino’s brusque manners, who would rarely smile.
Walking in that yard can create a certain impression to a fan, with the old stone well standing in the middle, where Apollonia, Pacino’s young wife, after spending her wedding night, blows up in the car. There’s also the famous balcony from where Al Pacino leans out.
Worth noting is the large iron side gate, with the arch made of Etna’s molten rock, from where Fabrizio, the traitor bodyguard, runs away just before the blast. Paramount, fearing problems in the first shot, had set two identical cars for the explosion scene, but the first take was perfect. The Baron Platania is still regretting not to have accepted Paramount’s offer to keep the spare car; indeed, it would have added an evocative touch.
In The Godfather- Part II, Robert De Niro has dinner with his family and a few friends in the yard, while in The Godfather- Part III Al Pacino and Andy Garcia are gathered talking to other Mafiosi to decide a way to find an important contact within the Vatican.
However, the best part of the house is the interior that has stayed exactly the same. In the scene where Al Pacino asks to be forgiven by Diane Keaton, they seat at a wooden table; the table, together with the lamps, the pictures, the doors and furniture seen in the movie are all there, in that fabulous and very elegant eighteenth-century hall.
Walking down a long staircase that leads under the castle, you find yourself in the dungeons. According to the Baron, down there were shot a few deleted scenes that showed Corleones’ hidden treasure.
Diane Keaton’s arrival at the station was instead shot in Taormina. She is welcomed by Al Pacino and their daughter Sofia (Coppola’s daughter in real life). In this shot the station sign reads Bagheria, but actually it was Taormina train station.
Travelling in these places, on one hand I felt a really familiar feeling for my Sicilian origins, but on the other hand I was really excited, for I was walking among the same houses and on the same streets where, a long time ago, those incredible artists had walked. It’s very easy to empathize with the aura of these representative places, belonging to an idea of Sicily perfectly reconstructed, where the Mafia settings are revived in every details.
The ambience summoned by Francis Ford Coppola is a perfect reconstruction of reality, a poor desert like land totally subdued by Cosa Nostra, that instil a sense of loss in the visitor; Nino Rota’s soundtrack, still now one of the favourite tunes not only in Sicily, accompanies the entire film.
Those were places where everybody knew everything and where even walls had eyes and ears. Strict family traditions, unwritten rules transmitted from the past, the code of silence, shocking “honour proofs” needed to join the organization, the complete lack of recognition of police force and the trust code among “honour men” were only a few of the strict guidelines of the most powerful criminal organization ever.
In conclusion I’ll say that these places are really worth a visit, first of all for the residents kindness and welcoming and for their stunning historical and artistic amenities, but also for getting to know better the remains of a poor rural architecture that contributed to make The Godfather a cinema masterpiece without age, a sublime film and a milestone, finally the best representative and realistic document on Cosa Nostra in those years. A real work of art that will never pass away.