Pashupatinath is one of the most important Hindu temples in Nepal. Located near the Bagmati River, it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with a few other legendary temples in Kathmandu. At the ghats (stairs leading down to the river), funeral pyres are constantly being built for the open-air cremations taking place on a daily basis. Non-Hindus are not allowed access to the Pashupatinath temple, but the real attraction for both Nepalese and foreign visitors are the cremations. Cremations are part of life and death, but not something that anyone would want to witness too often.
As one approaches the Bagmati River, the smokestacks of ongoing cremations are normally visible in the distance. People in Nepal are cremated in different sites, depending on their social and economic status in life. One is reserved for members of the royal family, another one for wealthy and prestigious families, and several others for the common folk. The cremation places for the commoners are located at the other end of the bridge, kept out of sight from the places used by the royals and the wealthy. From the opposite bank of the river one can observe all of the various ongoing activities.
The fire is managed by two persons, who appear to be close family members. They use long bamboo sticks to stir the fire and ensure it consumes everything. Next to the fire a young man sits on the stairs leading down to the river, his head shaven. The whole thing is difficult to understand for us coming from a different culture. It is an impressive but surprisingly not grisly spectacle, as the general atmosphere is serene.
As soon as the pile bursts into flames, the body gets covered with straws soaked in water collected from the nearby holy Bagmati River, resulting in a lot of white smoke. As the head of the body is thus concealed, the attending family members start waiting for the pyre to be fully consumed by the fire, which takes many hours. Once complete, the relatives descend the stairs to dispose of the ashes of the deceased into the river.
Not everyone is cremated. Holy men, lepers and people with smallpox have traditionally been buried, with holy men buried in a vertical position and their bodies preserved with salt. Small children under the age of two also are not cremated, because their souls do not need purifying. Often times today, instead of being buried they are moved by boat to the middle of the Ganges or some other sacred river and then dropped into the waters, tied to a heavy stone to make them sink to the bottom.
Families who cannot afford the wood required for the cremation service sometimes also dump the corpses into the Ganges. On occasion, an effigy is burned to symbolize cremation. Few people are buried and they mostly are victims of suicide, murder, or some other kind of violent death, because it is believed that their souls will never find peace – no matter how the corpse is disposed of.
“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.
The origins of the Social Action Volunteers dates back to 1974 when the first group of Godavari Alumni Association, young men and young women, walked to the village of Gonga Bu to begin the social survey of the area.
The survey showed that the village people’s priorities were health care, education for their children and food for their babes.
Gene says: “The day on which a baby in Nepal first eats solid food is celebrated as a big festival for the family.”
In response to these needs Dr. N.D. Joshi, an ophtalmologist on leave from Brunei, volunteered go to a weekly clinic in a tea shop in the village of Gonga Bu.
Soon the little room in the tea shop was overwhelmed by numerous patients with all kinds of diseases from leprosy to encephalitis.
So they moved to a larger room in the middle of the village. One of their Lady doctors decided to set up a a separate clinic for mothers and babies. The number continued to grow until the roads developed and it became easier for the sick to reach the Kathmandu hospitals.
A donor agreed to provide Watrin with a veichle that would enable him and the doctors to provide health care to more distant villages.
Without the visits of the Mobile Clinic it would be very difficult, if not impossible for mothers to get the needed medical care for young children. Statistics show that 47% of the children of Nepal are malnourished and if they fall sick they have very low resistance to any disease.
They need imediate and professional care which Mobile Clinic is able to provide. Without this help the children often become physically and mentally retarded for many tears or even life. These sick village children are certainly the poorest of the poor and what could be a better use of donor funds than to do whatever is possible to enable them to develop into healthy, happy and productive adults. This is what mobile clinic is doing. The Social Action Volunteers-Nepal’s 25 years of village health work enable them to do it well.
His days begin with an hour of prayer before his 6:30 daily Mass in the chapel at the Godavari Alumni Association. Before Mass has even ended the poor people who traveled far from their villages to seek help for food, shelter or clothing, are already knocking on his door. His days are long and busy but he likes it that way and he thanks God at the day’s end for his busy life and we thank God for Fr. Gene.
Nepal is still a Country where to get adequate and satisfying health cares is not so easy as a western person can believe. In the highest Country of the world, where the wonderful Himalayan peaks dominate the entire nation and divide it from Tibet, and where tourists climb the mountains all around the Kathmandu Valley, many calamities such as the children?s malnutrition and other serious diseases: Leprosy, HIV, Tuberculosis, are very diffused and only if you have the fortune to be enough rich to afford good medical treatments, is possible to hope to live a proper life. It was the month of September of the year 2001 and moved to Nepal to work to another reportage. I was based in Kathmandu and one day I asked to the taxi driver to bring me out of the city because I knew that there was something interesting to see at the near city of Pashupatinath.
This is a city known for the hindu cremations, but here, not so far from the capital, there is a little complex of temples where Mother Teresa’s order of nuns started off a recruiting centre for sick and old people affected and suffering by different forms of diseases. Here, 15 nuns two days a week come to assure comfort and assistance to this people. Many of them are simply old or alone in the life. Nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep, no family, no relatives. When I arrived and came down from the taxi, immediately a boy came to me offering his contribution to guide me in the tour of the city. I told him that I wanted take a look to this institute and so he kindly showed me the way. The mostly of the tourists, as not Hindus are not allowed to visit the complex.
In this leprosarium, my first impression was to stay in a quite and clean place, and it did not seem so depressing as I thought, but unfortunately this sensation changed very soon. The first thing I noticed was the human dignity. It surprised me very much, especially in the eyes of women there was a so great haughty bearing and a so incredible pride. Also if in their visible poorness and humility, they took great care over how they dressed, to care themselves, their hair, their hands. Usually women prepare the food, especially spices, rice and other kind of vegetables and wash the clothes in a common yard using old pails and running water.
For a moment I felt like an intruder in their world, but I didn’t understand if I was appreciated or not, this because they seemed don’t care about my presence. All around, there was many monkeys quickly climbing the walls of the complex and walking over them. In Nepal, monkeys are considered sacred animals. My guide told me kindly to refrain to look them directly in the eyes because they can interpret this act as an act of challenge and there is the concrete risk to make them became very aggressive. Nepal is full of monkeys but also full of people wounded from them.
Paying attention to these not so friendly creatures and refraining to watch their pupils, the exploration of the place brought me in another section of the complex; the hospitalisation wards.
The sense of sadness and solitude now started assault me. Everywhere, men and women alone and stretched on unrehearsed beds, almost all in a forced status of darkness without artificial lights, but only few and slim sun light rays came inside from the external.
This made me understand how backward can be the health assistance level in this Country, much more than any statistics could explain, and how sad could be to stay and to live in a place like that living in a terrible and depressing solitude.
In this part of the complex was not allowed to take photos but my curiosity and my desire to bring back with me the testimony of what I was seeing, prevailed!
My guide suggested me to give to a woman few rupee to be allowed to shoot photographs, so I did. As photographer I should always take all my pictures without any form of fear or moral brakes, but in some cases I remember to be a human being and at the top of my target I have respect for the most weak people.
The most nice thing was to see their incredible will to communicate with me and their will to know something more about myself and about my nationality. Thanks to my approach and especially thanks to my personal guide, was possible to share with these unfortunate people some friendly and intense moments. I ate some food with them and they seemed to be so surprised to see me staying there with them for a couple of hours. They was so friendly and their food was so delicious. Generally, when a tourist arrives in a place like this he will not remain for long time, usually no more than few minutes, just the time to take some snapshots to the monuments and then to leave the place quietly but in a hurry.
The time passed very quickly for me and I had the chance to understand how long I spent there only when I saw that the sun was coming down and the temperature started to became a bit colder.
First to leave the complex I overviewed around me one more time and I had the way to notice that nothing was changed. Many small groups of people was still seated on the ground and many of them was only shades in the darkness and very similar to a troop of silent ghosts. The only things changed was located into myself.
Leaving this place the main feelings I felt was, at the same time, a mix of happiness and sadness. Happy, because I felt much more richer inside myself, I lived a unique and unforgettable experience that changed deeply my intimacy. Sad because the awareness to be so lucky to have a family and woman that was waiting for me from the other side of the world, I also knew that I never could say or to think the same words addressed to that people known in the complex of Pashupatinath.