The Sopranos

Marisa Carroll

The problem with the Soprano family, as Bobby chided Tony, is that they "always go too far". It's also a primary reason the show is so compelling.

The Sopranos

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler, Michael Imperioli, Aida Turturro, Steven R. Schirripa
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: HBO
US release date: 2007-04-08

Janice (Aida Turturro): He just lost his wife. He had so much sadness, so much love for her, such complete and pure emotion. I felt unworthy to be in his presence. I was so moved by him!

Sandy (Joyce Van Patten): You saw in this man the things you want in your life: truth, love...

Janice: Yes. Somehow I have to find a way to move away from the darkness and toward the light!

Sandy: What does this man do?

Janice: He works with my brother, but he's not like the others.

Sandy: Janice!

Janice: Sandy, he's different. Believe me.

Sandy: [hesitantly] Okay.

When Janice Soprano set her sights on Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa) in Season Four of The Sopranos, her therapist had reason to worry. Janice's past relationships with other Mafiosi did not end happily. Still, there was something different about Bobby. Yes, he was Uncle Junior's (Dominic Chianese) right-hand man, but unlike Silvio (Steve Van Zandt) or Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), he seemed to have a selfless side. He was a patient father, a doting husband, and the only member of Tony's crew without a goomara.

But Bobby's most significant difference wasn't revealed until the stellar first and third episodes of The Sopranos' Season Six, Part Two. When he and Tony (James Gandolfini) shared a heart-to-heart about business and family on their lakeside vacation in "Home Movies," Bobby revealed he had never "popped his cherry," murder-wise. Though Bobby Sr. (Burt Young) was a mob executioner (whom Tony dubbed the "Fucking Terminator"), he didn't want that for his son. Tony, on the other hand, was not spared "the big fat pain in the balls" by his own dad, Johnny Boy Soprano (Joseph Siravo).

In fact, it was Johnny Boy who assigned Tony his first hit, Willy Overalls, whose remains were dredged up by the Feds in this season's third episode, "Remember When." The paternal bequests of Bobby Sr. and Johnny Boy reverberated into the present, one ultimately undoing the other.

The problem with the Soprano family, as Bobby chided Tony in "Home Movies," is that they "always go too far." It's also a primary reason the show is so compelling. David Chase repeatedly re-imagines ordinary family scenarios -- like a weekend trip to the mountains -- in brutal, gangster terms. A father-daughter tour of colleges was sidelined by the strangulation of a mob rat in Season One; a wedding gown fitting included a discussion of the bride and groom's penchant for using a gun during sex play ("[We] take the clip out!") in Season Two; and a drug intervention devolved into punches and chairs thrown at the addict in Season Four.

Such signature exaggerations remain both hilarious and unsettling. In "Home Movies," a drunken game of Monopoly among Tony, Carmela (Edie Falco), Janice, and Bobby escalated into a fistfight between the two men. They broke windows and blackened eyes. Most importantly, Bobby emerged the victor. Like the proverbial elephant, Tony never forgets and he rarely forgives: in this instance, he reasserted his dominance, punishing Bobby by the most diabolical means possible. He ordered him to make a hit, thereby stripping Bobby of his father's legacy and poisoning the Baccalieris' past and future.

The juxtaposition between Bobby's dual roles as middle-class family man and newly minted killer became painfully clear in the episode's final, heart-wrenching sequence. When he returned to his Adirondacks retreat after the murder, the Drifters' "This Magic Moment" imbued the scene with both irony and nostalgia. As she entertained another family by the lake, Janice greeted Bobby warmly, the reflection of the setting sun on the water turning her body into a golden silhouette. She never looked happier or more beautiful. But the scene's idyllic quality was distorted by the audience's knowledge of Bobby's fall from grace: the image was as disturbing as one of John Currin’s suburban grotesqueries.

The themes of loss and dread carried over to the second ("Stage 5") and third episodes, as Tony and his Brooklyn associates Johnny Sacramoni (Vince Curatola) and Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) contemplated their mortality and their own legacies. In the past, Tony has justified his crew's sociopathic behavior by insisting that they were "soldiers," part of something bigger than themselves. By Season Six, this logic no longer holds. Mob mentors have been knocked from their pedestals, and Tony's might-have-been protoge are restless, rejecting their birthright. As the series winds down, Tony, Johnny, and Phil are realizing their criminal involvement guarantees them little honor and no glory.

This much is evident in the sagas surrounding Cleaver, the horror film produced by Tony's intended successor, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), which paints the mob boss as "an asshole bully," Johnny Sac's guilty plea from prison, which compromised his reputation in Brooklyn, and Phil's old-school adherence to the omerta, which makes him look like a patsy. Worse, the "life" has left them all with debilitating physical problems: Tony's gunshot wound, Johnny's stage four cancer, and Phil's coronary disease. In "Stage 5," Gerry Torciano (John Bianco), Phil's protoge explained the decline to Silvio in typical Sopranos parlance: "Johnny goes away, Phil's in the driver's seat, and his heart gives out. His heart... It's a metaphor, Sil. He lost his balls is what I'm sayin'."

The depiction of Uncle Junior's mental and physical deterioration in "Remember When" was the most poignant collapse among the top tier gangsters. Relegated to running puny card games in a psychiatric prison, Junior battled to hold on to his dignity as his freedom, power, and continence were stripped from him. In the episode's final scene, a lonely and wheelchair-bound Junior, once the most eloquent character on the show, had been effectively silenced. The end is indeed nigh.

There are six episodes left in The Sopranos, and there is no telling how Chase will wrap it up. During "Stage 5," Tony described Cleaver's plot to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), seeing its diabolical ending (which does involve a meat cleaver) as a revenge fantasy. Sadly, he surmised, "[Christopher] hates my guts. He wants to see me dead." When Melfi suggested he was reading too deeply into the plot, Tony disagreed. "I've been coming here for years. I know too much about the subconscious now." No matter where Tony ends up, it's clear he will be haunted by another legacy as complicated as his family's: the legacy of psychoanalysis.

In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, Tony voiced his ambivalence about psychiatry and expressed a longing to be like Gary Cooper, the hero who has informed his self-image and appeared in his dreams. He ranted to Dr. Melfi: "Whatever happened to the strong, silent type? He wasn't in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do... Now it's dysfunction this, dysfunction that, dysfunction va fangul!" Although Tony has resisted therapy throughout the series, he always returned, whether to relieve his anxiety, understand the sources of his depression, or learn strategies for coping with his family and associates.

Melfi and the audience have wondered from the beginning if treatment could ever rehabilitate a character as hypocritical, impulsive, and violent as Tony Soprano. It's obvious that even the attempt at a "cure" has changed our antihero. Fruits from the tree of knowledge are costly, and after the first bite, there is no turning back.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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