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Television Review

Shuffling Through a Mob of 'Godfather' Knockoffs

July 24, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

No wonder so many Americans of Italian origin are bitter about the way they're so often portrayed in movies and television: Mafia, Mafia and more Mafia.

NBC ended last week by rerunning its Sammy "The Bull" Gravano miniseries, "Witness to the Mob," for example, and Showtime will end this one with Sunday's Part 1 of its gory and belabored five-hour marathon "Bonanno: A Godfather's Story."

Another Italian mob aria? Where is omerta when you really want it?

From the inane "The Last Don" miniseries on CBS to that masterful series "The Sopranos" on HBO (which also gave viewers "Gotti" and this year's "Lansky," whose Jewish subject thrived in a Sicilian-driven crime milieu), the Italians you see most prominently on TV are violent mobsters.

All of these stereotypes being progeny of "The Godfather," you can blame this pop-culture infatuation with the Mafia on writer Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 4, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 7 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Screenwriter--Due to inaccurate press materials, Timothy Prager was omitted as the screenwriter of the HBO film "Vendetta" in a recent Calendar review.

The word "vendetta" is defined as "traditional Sicilian justice" by the protagonist of "Bonanno." Its meaning is strikingly different, though, in a recently aired HBO movie titled "Vendetta," whose 1890 Italians are victimized when corrupt, bigoted New Orleans power brokers use mob justice to erase the acquittals of "dago" dockworkers wrongly accused of murdering the city's police chief. The account is based on an actual incident.

Written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, "Vendetta" was completed under previous HBO management. Although flawed in spots, it's intriguing with a powerful ending that delivers a strong message in a film that was curiously de-emphasized by usually promotion-minded HBO. Late-nighters and early-risers alert: It reruns Tuesday morning at 4:20.

Back on the Mafia front, Bonanno, now a 94-year-old retiree, is a former powerful New York don whose Showtime story is drawn from his own autobiography and another affectionate book about him by his oldest son, Bill, one of the movie's executive producers.

That means having three totally unalike actors (Bruce Ramsay, Tony Nardi and Martin Landau) play him in different stages of adulthood is the least of the Michel Poulette-directed story's problems. As are the inevitable gridlock of corpses and ponderous Godfatherese: "Let us see what life has in store."

More problematic, as we watch young Joe grow up in Sicily before arriving in America to fulfill his destiny as "a man of honor," is the Thomas Michael Donnelly script's glorification of Bonanno in an account as thick with euphemisms as bodies.

Just as "The Godfather" films depicted the Mafia as operating in ways similar to big business and politics, "Bonanno" seeks mightily to narrow the gap separating lawbreakers and respectable society. In case you don't get the point, a crescendoing Godfatherly score impales you on it.

Here is Landau as the aged Bonanno narrating his own story: "From that moment on, we would be known as the Bonanno family. We would be governed by the all-embracing values and ideals that made up our tradition. It is this phase of our tradition that Americans usually call the Mafia."

And again: "America has a very distorted view of our world. Mafia is a process, not a thing. What makes this process work is the belief in friendships, connections, family ties, trust, loyalty. These form the glue that held us together."

Sounds like the Boy Scouts. And when murder is required, not to worry, for when Bonanno's side resorts to extreme violence (note that he isn't shown pulling a trigger), the killers are nearly always much better guys than their victims.

Meanwhile, "Bonanno" affirms other historical accounts about Joseph Kennedy Sr.'s early bootlegging, and also has him interceding with his sons, President Kennedy and Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, on behalf of Mafia interests. It also repeats the claim that Mafia hit men murdered the president in Dallas (with Bonanno opposed), and that Jack Ruby's shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald also was mob ordered.

Like much of "Bonanno," it's a scenario you may be able to refuse.

* "Bonanno: A Godfather's Story" is shown at 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, with the conclusion at 8 p.m. Monday. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17). "Vendetta" airs at 4:20 a.m. Tuesday on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).

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