This is the American Iliad: fascinating story, timeless characters, myth. Again and again, we find it applies to daily life.
It is a fictional story about Sicilian immigrants that form a “family.” A family in this sense begins with the literal nuclear family, moves out to the extended family, then reaches out to incorporate all kinds of others that become “family” by loyalty and covenant.
Yes, it is a crime family. But that is accidental, not essential. The proper way to view the criminal aspect (as myth) is the family as outsiders that defensively create a self-sufficient society of its own.
The patriarch organizes and provides for the whole. Everyone has his place, his duties, his comfort zone.
Thus, the story is not really about the Mafia at all. The debate over whether the story is true to the actual Mafia misses the point. It is nothing less than an idealized allegory for what it means to be a nation.
In the Bible, a nation or ethnos is the community of descendants of a patriarch. The nation is known by the name of the patriarch. At the periphery, a few aliens become attached by oath or demonstration of loyalty. But the order needs to be kept: it is the patriarch and his descendants, plus some others; not a miscellaneous grab bag of deracinated individuals, plus their families.
The community must have a way of enforcing its norms and protecting itself from violent predators. This must take place in terms of a strong sense of justice if the order is not to become vitiated (e.g. “that is not justice; your daughter is still alive.”)
All these themes are taken up effortlessly by the film.
The acting is superb, right down to the bit parts. There is scarcely a character that is not memorable.
The music needs to be mentioned. It is full of longing, pain, and desire. It always complements the immediate theme. This is seen most vividly in the transition when Tom leaves New York and is landing in Los Angeles: the two musical themes tell the whole sub-story.
The photography is dark, brooding, romantic. It is full of rich east-coast colors and textures (except the sequence in California, which is bright and primary).
There is no real way to summarize it. Here is a thematic stream-of-consciousness:
- civil magistrate in microcosm
- brothers defending sisters
- much-needed vengeance
- slow empire building
- loyalty under stress
- sausage and pasta
- Sicilian babes
- piano plinkin’
- old world traditions
- keeping it in the family
- succession of generations
- vices catching up with one
- tribal chieftains negotiating the peace
- young bucks trying to find their niche
- meeting the daughter, with all respect
- sons that talk when they should listen
- crooked cops that get what is coming to them
Get it. Memorize it. Reflect on it. Enjoy it.