"And you," said the mother, "will come back when they have a baby and be his compare. You will be the godfather." There was no question of invitation in the way she said it.It was a command.
Louis Goulding, "Sicilian Noon"
Even in post "Godfather" days, a few visitors have come here and little has been written about this town of 40,000 that's squeezed into the rolling hills 60 miles south of Palermo.
And that's just the way the people who live here want it to stay.
They are not exactly exploiting the marketing potential created when Mario Puzo named his mythic godfather Don Vito Corleone - after the town from which he emigrated to America. Nor have they cameoed the aging face of Marlon Brando acting the role on the one postcard you can buy here: a tranquil, verdant telephoto shot of the town surrounded by cultivated mountainsides.
"Don Vito Corleone," a local priest laughs. "Il padrino. The people in this town do not like to think that other people associate it with the mafia. They are very quiet farmers. Five thousand alone I have in my one parish. There are 11 other parishes."
The padre is walking slowly up a 100-yard flight of steps that leads to a side entrance to his church. The door had been locked - extremely unusual in this land of 10,000 churches. But as he turns the key, the drab yellow exterior yields to a mammoth, perfectly kept church the size of a football field. The walls are hung with exquisite 600-year-old paintings and the ceiling is adorned with intricate red-and-gold carving. The pews are polished flawlessly and the altar is filled with freshly cut flowers. It does not have that functionally used feel of most Italian churches, and the maintenance bill would seem to match the annual gross product of a town that is ostensibly a farming community.
"I do not know how the bills are paid," the padre says. "The money just comes in the basket. The parishioners are very generous."
Indeed, if Corleone is the home of the mafia, as the innkeeper in Palermo had cautioned, it is at least definitive in its status. No one seems to do anything. Men talk in heavy dialogue in the bars, sipping thick, frothy cups of cappucino - they're well segregated from the women walking the bambini through cobblestone streets that curve wildly to match the contours of the hills. Very old men stand on corners and stare, saying nothing to resident and visitor alike. There is the absolute appearance that if anything goes on here, it's going on under the counter or behind closed doors or out in the hills where the huge, guarded estates of the wealthy lie separated from the town.
The town was pivotal in Francis Ford Coppola's conception and made appearances in both sections of his film.
In Part Two, we see Corleone as the place it all begins, where Vito's father is killed by the local don's men, where his brother takes off to the hills and is killed, where his mother begs the don to spare young Vito's life and then she too is killed. Many years later, Vito (Robert DeNiro) returns, now a man of respect in the olive oil business in America. And in a climactic act of vengeance he murmurs his father's name in the old don's ear, then stabs the fat capo to death: another Sicilian carousel.
And it is to Corleone also that Vito's son Michael (Al Pacino) returns in Part One when he must be shipped out of the country, the place where he falls wordlessly in love with the woman who becomes his first wife.
"Why do you go to Corleone?" the young innkeeper asked that morning. He is an Italian of Swiss descent, with about 10 years of hotel experience, and he says he likes to warn his guests of places that are not particularly suited for tourist travel.
"It is, you, not a friendly place," he said. "The home of the mafia. They do not like strangers. So much of Sicily is friendly. Why do you need to go there?"
It is hard to explain to him the broad, almost magical appeal of "The Godfather" to Americans. He is astounded to hear that the two parts of the film had been edited together especially for television, surprised to find that so many Americans would in fact want such a story beamed into their homes, amazed that an American might want to make a pilgrimage to a village romanticized in a film.
"I suppose," he says, "as an Italian, I do not like to think of so much violence coming from my country. it is not like Westerns, bang-bang.It is emotional violence."
But of course Sicily, like the mafia, was born of violence. Corleone itself was first settled by the Arabs, who named it Kurliyum. It was conquered by the Normans in 1079 and became a strategic center for Roger II. Later it was ruled by Charles of Anjou, until the infamous Sicilian vespers on Easter Tuesday, 1282. A French officer insulted a bride in Palermo by searching her, on her way to church, for concealed weapons. Within a week, every Frenchman on the island had been massacred, and Sicily then remained in a relative state of turmoil until Garibaldi annexed it to Italy in 1860.
Now the violence is not so apparent and Corleone, once a center of that violence, remains obscure to even many natives of the island. The definitive 181-page Touring Club of Italy Guide to Sicily mentions it in three brief paragraphs, as a side-trip on the road from Palermo to the Greek temples of Agrigento. Yet in that short description, the book uses one adjective to characterize the town: animosa.
In fact, Corleone does exude a certain almost tangible animosity that is so lacking in most other parts of the country, almost as if the residents here feel that the kick of the booth of Italy is administering geographically to the rear-end of the pizza-triangle island is directed right at their little town. It's a rude jolt after the pleasant drive from Palermo: a quick ascent into some steep, rocky mountains and then a gradual descent through rolling, fertile farmland. The one tipoff of what's coming in Corleone is the parched appearance of the farms, victims of a 10-month drought. The crucifixes placed regularly along the narrow but freshly surfaced road now have small tin cups in front of them, begging not for coins but for water.
Even as a car pulls into the town square, one resident has already pulled - casually, of course, and coincidentally, he wants it to seem - his car in behind to block any fast getaway. Men walk out of a cafe to stare, raising the spectre of Goulding's "Sicilian Noon."
"They seem primordial, akin to rockdwellers, or dwellers upon lake piles in the dawn of the world."
An old man walks past slowly, his eyes shaded by dark sunglasses on an overcast day. Two little boys run up to the visitor and begin to punch his thighs with their tiny fists, screaming in Italian, "Go back to your own home."
In a tabacci, where tobacco, stamps and postcards are sold, an older woman says she does not want to talk about "The Godfather." No, she did not see the film. She's not even sure that it ever came to the local theater here although, yes, she does remember that some Americans came to the area about five years ago to make part of a film.
"Why do you ask so many questions?" she wants to know. "And you don't even buy an cigarettes."
This is indeed the other Sicily, far removed from the culture known to Americans or even most Italians. It echoes the words written 40 years ago by Sicilian novelist Elio Vittorini in "In Sicily":
"We are a sad people, we Sicilians. Always hoping for something else, something better, and always despairing for being able to attain it."
Then suddenly, the painful silence is pierced by a jukebox in a bar near the tobacco shop. First it's Elvis Presley singing "Way Down" and Pat Boone crooning "Love Letters in the Sand."
And somehow for five minutes, Corleone doesn't seem all that foreign after all.