Friday, November 14, 2008

Ten Commandments of the Mafia

All things being equal, Tony Soprano probably had it right: “There is no Mafia!” the bear-like mob boss snapped to his inquisitive teen daughter, Meadow, in one of the first episodes of The Sopranos.

In the next breath, in a rare show of paternal trust, Tony allowed, “Some of my money comes from illegal gambling and whatnot.” But he insisted that he worked in waste management, which was true, in a way. Tony just had a hazy job description.

Somewhere in that father-daughter moment was the reality of the modern-day wise guy. There is no Mafia, never has been, but someone is still running the rackets in New Jersey and bodies still turn up in the Meadowlands.

Like so many real-life examples, Tony Soprano had a second family that came before his own wife and kids. Tony belonged to a secret social club, of sorts, referred to as “this thing of ours.” The biggest scam ever perpetrated by the Mafia was convincing its members that it never existed.

Mob life appears real in the new documentary Ten Commandments of the Mafia (Sunday, Discovery at 8 p.m.). Every good club has its rules.

A smart pickup from the U.S. Discovery channel, the program follows on a news story that drew headlines last year: In the hills of Palermo, Italian police swarmed the hideout of the allegedly highly ranked Mafia kingpin Salvatore Lo Piccolo, who was arrested with his son, Sandro, and two other reputed godfathers at a secret mob palaver. The film includes footage of the SWAT takedown; the cops wear ski masks to protect their identity.

The big news: In Mr. Lo Piccolo's belongings, police found a document, typed in plain Italian, supposedly detailing the 10 commandments of the Mafia. An initiation script of sorts, the document included the vow of admission into the Sicilian crime family: “I swear to be faithful to Cosa Nostra. If I should betray it, my flesh must burn, just as this image burns.” The sombre initiation ceremony has been depicted on The Sopranos and in movies dating back to The Valachi Papers.

In forensic fashion, the film parallels the list against true-crime stories, as related by law-enforcement officials and a fairly impressive lineup of felons.

The program includes interviews with former Colombo crime family capo Michael Franzese and one-time mob insider Henry Hill, whose life was chronicled in the 1990film Goodfellas. There are also interviews with former wise guys who prefer to keep their faces hidden. All the men are currently in the witness-protection program and would be considered “rats” in mob parlance.

The code itself is fascinating in its crudeness. Some of the rules are obtuse, and poorly penned. No. 10: “People who can't be part of Cosa Nostra are anyone with a close relative in the police, with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn't hold to moral values.”

Some of the commandments should be obvious to any respectable waste-management executive. No. 6: “Appointments must be respected.” Or No. 3: “Never be seen with cops.”

Revealing its old worldness, the list includes no less than three very important rules regarding the woman's place in the Mafia. No. 7: “Wives must be treated with respect.” No. 2: “Never look at the wives of friends.” And most tellingly, No. 5: “Always be available for Cosa Nostra, even if your wife's about to give birth.”

In between each commandment, the film explores the history of mob hierarchy and explains the titles of boss, underboss, captain and other mob rankings. Not so remarkably, the program confirms that most of the Mafia commandments seem to apply today, with the usual bending.

The Mafia has always held a convenient don't-ask-don't-tell policy. Members steal, cheat and murder in pursuit of monetary gain (were Mafia elders kidding with Commandment No. 9?: “Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families”), all the while pretending to adhere to an archaic code of honour. Perhaps most ludicrous is Commandment No. 8: “When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth.” Even the Mafia rule on lying is a lie.

For that matter, mob code still forbids the dealing of drugs, but the Mafia allegedly controls the billion-dollar global drug trade. Says one former wise guy with a shrug in the shadows: “As long as you're bringing in bagfuls of money, you can break any rule you want.”

And imagine the money set to roll in with the release of The Sopranos: The Complete Series, which landed in stores on Tuesday. Retailing at around $300, the DVD collection tops the price previously set by box sets of Six Feet Under and Sex and the City. Will Sopranos fans shell out the money? Does Paulie Walnuts wear white loafers?

In keeping with the template created by The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (both films air around the clock this weekend on AMC, starting Saturday at 8 p.m.), The Sopranos is a fictional mob saga steeped in realness. The Emmy-winning series has only expanded its zeitgeist since ending in 2006, courtesy of marathon broadcasts on A&E. Even with trimmed scenes and freakin' language adjustments, The Sopranos is still the “greatest show in TV history,” according to Vanity Fair.

Like Tony himself, the box set is bulky and imposing. Packaged in a black box and housed in a hefty coffee-table-type book, the box set features all 86 Sopranos episodes on 33 discs. All six seasons have been made previously available in DVD box sets; the draw this time is the staggering assortment of extra features.

All told, the master collection boasts 31/2 hours of bonus materials. Along with the deleted scenes, episodic commentary and soundtrack CDs, the box set features an extended interview with creator David Chase conducted by Alec Baldwin; a documentary titled Supper with the Sopranos, wherein cast members discuss the contentious series finale; and a collection of Sopranos spoofs that appeared on The Simpsons, MADtv and Saturday Night Live.

The tastiest bonus feature is The Whacked Sopranos, an hour-long filmed version of an event held last year at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. The lively panel discussion brings together five actors who came to untimely ends on the mob drama.

The unlucky group includes Steve Buscemi (Tony Blundetto), Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy) and Drea de Matteo, who went from playing the doomed moll Adriana to a lead role in the ill-fated Friends' spinoff Joey. “They killed me on HBO, and then I went to NBC to commit complete suicide,” de Matteo says. And none of the dearly departed seem particularly surprised that their respective demises barely registered with Chase, the real Godfather of The Sopranos. “It's not a big deal to me,” Chase says simply. “These are not real people.”

Thanks to Andrew Ryan

1 comment:

  1. Who is the narrator of the "Ten Commandments of the Mafia"?

    ReplyDelete