Archive for August, 2009


August 26, 2009


Season 2, Episode 4commendatori

Written by: David Chase

Directed by: Tim Van Patten


David Chase started out his early days of The Sopranos wanting to expand the idea of a television series to be something that compounds – not simply a “13 hour movie,” but a story told across space and time, that deals with the feeling of movement from one week to the next.  Yet as soon as he’d come up with that mission statement, true to form, Chase felt frustrated – he missed the feeling of “self-contained episodes” that were mini-movies in and of themselves.  His response in Season 1 was “College,” the seminal Sopranos episode in which Tony and Meadow take a road trip to the Northeast to visit colleges while Tony kills an informant, and Carmela takes benediction that may or may not be sexual with Father Phil.


Season 2’s self-contained creation is “Commendatore,” an episode in which, at its core, Tony, Paulie, and Christopher head to Naples to visit the Family in Italy, and Carmela, at home, mans her social sphere of mafia wives around poor Angie Bompenserio, who after a cancer scare is finally willing to admit she hates her husband, Pussy.  There are vague references while in Naples to the past we’ve seen of Tony – to the stress of his mother in a nursing home, and to a certain inquisitive and inscrutable woman in his life – but, much like us when we travel, they are not truly discussed.


Perhaps to emphasize its stance as a mini-movie, “Commendatore” opens with, appropriately enough, an FBI warning on a TV screen – Tony and his crew are set to watch The Godfather II and discuss their favorite scenes.  “The crickets,” Tony says, “The great old house.”  These are Tony’s ideas of Italy.  He knows he’s going there, and The Godfather II is his ideal of the “old country” and the Family’s place in it.  We will hear crickets in this episode, and see a great old house, but one that isn’t old at all.  Tony pulls up to it with the traditional Italian song “Cuoro Ingrato” (the same song Junior will sing in “Army of One”) playing in his car, but that score is drowned out by rap music blasting from the windows of the house.  This isn’t Coppola’s Italy it turns out, and it isn’t his family.


So much of The Sopranos is devoted to exposing its characters ideas of a situation, proving those ideas false, but these characters being not entirely capable of grasping those differences, not quite making them better people because of it.  Tony has been warned Zi Vittorrio, the Napolitano crime boss he’s gone there to meet, is a “serious man,” but find out he’s lost his mind – the man quotes nothing but American street names to Tony.  The true boss, it turns out, is his drop dead gorgeous daughter Annalisa (Sofia Milos), married to a mafia kingpin serving a life sentence.  This is the first and biggest thing Tony must get used to about Italy – the Family is run by a woman.


But this, of course, is just where the differences begin.  Italy and New Jersey feature a culture divide that seems to have absolutely no bridging.  At a restaurant, Paulie wants “macaroni and gravy” instead of the muscles and seafood pasta he’s given (leading the locals to call him a “classless piece of shit”).  The three of them watch Furio (Federico Castellucio, in his first appearance – he’s a regular in the next two seasons, eventually even falling in love with Carmela himself) and his associates beat up a young child who set off firecrackers, fearing that they were gunshots aimed at Zi Vittorio.  Tony and Paulie marvel that “he’s just a kid” as the cops drive by, Furio punches the poor kid’s mother, and associates say, “This is Naples University,” all totally unsurprised by a typical scene of mafia violence. 


Annalisa herself is a puzzle – burning her toenail clippings to keep them from her enemy.  And in any case, the Italians find the American romanticizing of who they are bizarre and hilarious.  In a magnificent scene, Paulie marvels that he and his Italian hooker (Alida Tarallo, in a marvelous one scene performance) are from the same village.  She couldn’t care less as she – topless the entire time – douches herself and scratches her foot, rolling her eyes at Paulie’s bizarre infatuation and, truly, self-centered romance of what has always simply been her home.  The title too comes from Paulie’s perspective – “commendatore,” meaning commander, is what Italians seem to be saying to each other out of respect.  It also, occasionally, gets no response whatsoever from the true locals (the true locals, in this case, including David Chase in one of his Hitchcockian cameos).


This would be the first of many Sopranos excursions, and like future episodes, it was shot on location in Naples.  Over the years, The Sopranos will take us to LA (“Luxury Lounge”), Vegas (“Kennedy and Heidi”), Miami (“Calling All Cars,” “Remember When”), and Paris (“Cold Stones”).  Paris especially will be shot in the same manner – lots of unexplained shots of the environment itself, marveling at the details of the landscape.  A later scene, in which the men drive back from the airport, is silent except for the industrial vistas of Italy – home to some is quite different from home to others.  Tony says of Mt. Vesuvius, “I’m going to tell Artie that mural they spent all this money on is like a used Trojan compared to this.”


Yet why do we want to watch a bunch of xenophobes wandering around a foreign country?  To me the drive of “Commendatori” comes in Tony’s sense of fascination – Paulie and Christopher (incapacitated all episode due to the discovery of Italian heroin) are incapable, but Tony sees something else, a marvel of the differences of his world and who he is.  Annalisa says, as she takes care of her dad, “What else would I do, put him in a schpitz?”  That is what Tony did with his mother, after all – do they know more than he?  Or are they in a backwards world that cannot rationally survive – full of nonsense like an oracle Annalisa drags Tony into, where he flirts his way into a good business deal, but away from sex with Annalisa.  In the way Tony can be evil but is also rational and reasoned, his thoughts on his existence are ours.  Have we also not felt out of body, observers of our own in a new land when away from home?  Tony has no one to explain this to, and a call home from Carmela yields nothing but frustration – “well if the food is as stimulating as this conversation, I have nothing to worry about,” Carmela barks at him.


Carmela does not seem especially fond of Tony this episode, no she does not.  “Commendatori” does not only reference the old world respect of Italy, but also the culture of the Family’s wives, viewed as a unit perhaps for the first time in The Sopranos here.  At lunch, Rosalie, Carm, and Angie Bompenserio seem the picture of civility until Angie reveals that Pussy’s returning home makes her sick and that she intends to divorce him.  The news sends the wives gossip circle into a frenzy – we view, for the first time also, Silvio’s wife Gabriella, played by Steven Van Zandt’s actual wife Maureen Van Zandt.  She’s on hold with Carmela while she also talks to Ro – “I haven’t called Franny Altieri yet,” Carm says.  “Ooh, she’s gonna shit!” Ro responds.


It is perhaps worth noting, from August of 2009 while I’m writing this, that this aired in February of 2000, many years before reality TV turned so many financially wealthy, surgically enhanced middle-aged women into TV C-listers – perhaps now, in the world of the Real Housewives of… series, such underhanded cattiness is not especially surprising.  In those TV shows, the breaches of social folkways are turned into the stuff of a million camera-ready asides.  Can you imagine those women behaving as Ro did when Angie starts crying at lunch – that is, yelling to table of onlookers, “Eat your manicot, fuckin’ nosey!”  Can you imagine those women behaving as Carmela did, couching her gossip in concern – Angie was breaking the “holy sacrament” of marriage, leaving 3 children from a broken home – although, as Angie points out, the youngest of these children is 19.


Tony and Angie are the main focuses of the action on screen, in Italy and in New Jersey, but really, Carmela’s actions are the true object of fascination in the episode – the stuff you can’t get out of your head.  Her interactions with Tony are terse and dismissive, and why, truly, does she become so involved in Angie’s unhappiness?  Janice comes up with something – about women acting in the mother/whore vein for mafia men (and David Chase has, on occasion, called Carmela a whore) before tripping on her own inadequacies as someone who follows human logic (Janice calls Richie Aprile “sensitive” after having been in prison – this from the guy who ran over a relatively innocent mafia associate three times two episodes ago).


But it’s Carmela’s final scene with Angie that says the most about her.  In her home, she comforts Angie – or, is she manipulating her?  Entreating her three children, Angie starts crying, and Carmela hugs her, responding, “In the end, I know you’ll stay with him.”  This is, in its way, an act of emotional violence on Angie, forcing her to conform with her own compromises and unhappiness.  The final scene of the episode remains truly one of The Sopranos most haunting final minutes.  Carmela is home, listening to Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partiro” as she does a few times throughout the episode and resurfacing later in the series’ run – even remarking on how a blind person can possess access to such emotions.  In a way, the song symbolizes Carmela’s blindness to her own emotions.  Angie commented at lunch that when Pussy returned and said he was home, she “wanted to vomit.”  Well, we see the same thing – Tony returns from Italy, and Carmela’s face is shown in full disgust because for the episode cuts to credits.  Her story and Angie’s are truly the same – one in which the important questions and thoughts of life are stifled in the day to day ongoings of the world that is their New Jersey lives.  Such a complex airing of Carmela’s contradictions form, truly, the basis for who she is throughout the series – in touch, but inexorable in a world she has no power to leave.


A scene you may not have noticed:

In an early scene showing a typical WASP-y family getting carjacked for Tony’s cross-continent car theft ring, David Chase lays on his bourgeois antipathy rather thick – the mother has a sensible sweater wrapped around her shoulders, and the family has a cute Cocker Spaniel named Churchill.  After their carjacking, the father yells, “Fucking n—ers!  Who else?” before cutting to a shot of Tony’s satisfied face looking at a picture of their SUV.  Chase has always seemed to have little patience for upper crust modernity, but his true attempt is to explore it – in this case, of the seething ignorance and viciousness barely under the surface of their good graces, as the father of the family unleashes his racial tirade as a response to his provocation. 


The truth is, I think Chase needed to employ a little of this cynicism and bitterness in order to truly capture all of us.  In future (and, for that matter, past) episodes, dealings with money are always very specific on the amounts, perks of middle class economic success very clearly drawn – and the fear and bile they hide exposed.  From episode to episode, you can often connect dots of this type of cynicism dotting around both in peripheral characters, and in the interactions of the main cast.