Tony and his colleagues take a business trip to Italy. Carmela tries to talk Angie Bonpensiero out of pursuing a divorce.
Big Pussy reduces New Jersey’s total number of Elvis-impersonators by one.
EPISODE 17 - ORIGINALLY AIRED FEB 6, 2000 WRITTEN BY DAVID CHASE DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
The “Vacation Episode” is a very common television trope, many shows including I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch, Saved by the Bell, and The Golden Girls have had episodes that take place in some new (and often exotic) land. We know from these earlier examples that the underlying principle of a particular show does not typically change even though the locale changes: Lucy will always adorably attract trouble, whether she is wrapping chocolates in New York or stomping grapes in Italy or chasing celebrities in Hollywood. This is true in “Commendatori” as well: the guys travel to Italy, but a core sentiment of the series—the fucking regularness of life—is as pervasive over there as it is in New Jersey.
Chase’s impulse to demythologize all aspects of life is apparent throughout The Sopranos, and it appears early in this episode. In the first scene, the guys gather to watch the most mythological film in SopranoWorld—The Godfather—but the DVD player does not cooperate. Paulie beats the crap out of the malfunctioning machine with his shoe.
Chase does not madly hack at our mythologies the way that Paulie does the DVD player. His approach is more gentle, more subtle. The mythologies that we live by are necessary and important, they integrate our values and desires and histories into a coherent whole. They are the foundation of culture. Chase’s interest seems to be in testing the validity of some of our myths. Like all cultures, our American culture suffers from instances of self-blindness and complacency. We decry foreign fundamentalisms – but hold onto our own beliefs with a deathgrip. In my write-up for this episode, I will focus on how Chase presents Chris, Paulie, Tony and Carmela, whose personal mythologies are tied into our national mythologies.
“Commendatori” is one of the great episodes of the Season 2, full of all the great stuff we love about the series: quick, convincing portraits of characters who don’t appear again; sparkling dialogue and wordplay that never sacrifice verisimilitude; edits loaded with humor and meaning. It is a rich and bewitching episode, one that resists deciphering or diagramming. I’m doing it a disservice by breaking it into an analysis of the four characters (I feel like I’m putting a magic potion into a centrifuge, coldly separating out each ingredient) but I think that this is the clearest, most efficient way to diagram how I believe the episode functions.
Upon arriving in Naples, Chris is eager to experience its beautiful women, topless beaches, and Mt. Vesuvio. But he doesn’t do any of these things. (His missed trips to Vesuvio become a running gag of the episode.) Instead, he holes up in his hotel room with his Italian counterpart, Tanno, to hit the needle. Chris is surrounded by beauty, excitement and history but these things all take a backseat to heroin. Last season, Chris complained bitterly to Tony that he felt the “fucking regularness” of life to be too much for him. He yearns for his days to be filled with drama and excitement. American culture may plant this yearning within us in a way that no culture in history has ever done. We are endlessly exposed to a rather unrealistic definition of “the good life.” Even a 45-second TV commercial for cholesterol medication, for example, is packed with sunny images of trips through the countryside in convertibles, and soft-lit romantic dinners, and flag-football games with cheerful friends. Perhaps we are losing the War on Drugs not only because of bad policy, but also because our art and media and business sector have convinced us that happiness is achievable only with chemical help. The central myth of Chris’ life will increasingly become the belief that banality can be escaped with a needle and a spoon. (The central tragedy of his life will be that drug addiction has a slow and destructive banality of its own.)
When Chris complained last season about his unhappiness, his yearning to have an “arc,” Paulie responded, “Hey, I got no arc either. I was born, grew up, spent a few years in the Army, a few more in the can. And here I am. A half a wiseguy. So what?” He’s satisfied just being Paulie Walnuts. But the trip to Italy precipitates a new recognition in him. He realizes that he, Peter Paul Gaultieri, is actually a man with the long arc of history and culture behind him, going back generations, even millenia. Because of this, everything about the Old Country becomes varnished with significance for him. He is bursting with excitement, like a kid in a candy store. An unseasoned traveller, he has never learned that what is novel and exciting for the tourist is very often just part of everyday life for the locals. At an outdoor cafe, he tries out a new, exciting word, calling out “Commendatori!” to a group of men. The men ignore him, although one gentleman does momentarily turn his head. But the man turns back to his friends and his cigarette without even acknowledging Paulie. (“Cocksuckers,” grumbles Walnuts.)
The man in black is, of course, David Chase himself. He was the writer of this demythologizing episode, and by playing this particular character, he doubles his role – he personally deflates Paulie’s romantic, mythologized view of Italy. Chris seeks to escape the quotidian by getting high, and Paulie looks at Italy through rose-colored glasses, but Chase appears here, in person, to remind us all that banality—the fucking regularness of life—is unavoidable and must be expected and accepted.
When Michael Corleone spends time in Italy in The Godfather, his experience is never dull or banal. He gets hit by “the thunderbolt,” falling in love with gorgeous Apollonia at first sight. They get married in a lovely Italian wedding. Just as their idyllic life together is beginning, Michael loses his wife, in a gut-wrenching scene, to a car bomb. But neither the DVD nor the aesthetic of The Godfather works in this episode of The Sopranos. Paulie’s most gut-wrenching moment is finding the toilet at the restaurant to be broken, so he has to “hoof it” back to his hotel. There are no car bombs here, the closest thing to an explosion comes from some firecrackers that a young gangster wannabe sets off near the mobsters. And Paulie’s prostitute is not the nubile, doe-eyed beauty that Michael Corleone’s bride is.
Pres. Calvin Coolidge said that “The business of America is business.” He was certainly correct, but perhaps Coolidge didn’t go far enough. Business is arguably the religion of America as well, the central and defining myth of life in the United States. And Tony is one of the devout. Early in the episode, when the young family’s Mercedes Benz SUV is carjacked by two black guys, the enraged father screeches, “Fucking niggers! Who else, huh?! Who else?” The edit answers his question, cutting to an overjoyed Tony holding Polaroids of the stolen cars. He literally sighs with happiness at the sight of the illegal haul:
His contentment is comparable to what a Catholic feels handling her rosary beads or a Hopi Indian feels holding a kachina doll. Money is Tony’s god, and the Polaroids represent his service to his Lord.
Tony does not seek history or culture or spiritual connection to his ancestors when he visits Italy. He is all business. There is a part of Tony that has romanticised Italy – his favorite scene in the Godfather movies is when Vito Corleone returns to Italy to Don Ciccio’s home, a pastoral scene bathed in Mediterranean light and the sound of crickets. But Vito is not vacationing, he has come to take care of unfinished business – he kills Ciccio to avenge his father’s murder. Tony, too, makes the trip across to take care of business. Chase throws us a bit of misdirection in one scene: when Tony is being chauffeured to the acting Don’s house, the scene is scored with sweeping music and grand visuals that capture the romance and warmth of the Old World; but the sudden appearance of the Don’s house, with its generic contemporary architecture and pop music playing in the background, snaps Tony to the fact that this trip is not about making a nostalgic reconnection with the ancestral land:
If Paulie’s problem is that he looks at Italy through rose-colored glasses, Tony’s problem is just the opposite – he barely even looks at Italy, his focus is on his ledger book. He is trying to get top-dollar for the stolen cars, and to snatch Furio back to America in the process. Tony doesn’t seem too impressed by the scenes of Old World charm and beauty that stock this episode. Although Chase does not hesitate to take a broadaxe to those myths that deserve to be chopped down, he recognizes the mythical quality of some of Italy’s landscapes and cityscapes and street scenes. Some of the architectural imagery, in particular, resound with mythic power. Chase’s roamin’ eye captures them in abundance:
Chase taps into Italian mythology most obviously when Tony and Annalisa visit the Cave of the Sibyl at Cumae. Virgil’s Aeneid recounts the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas who first made Italian landfall here in Cumae. (According to the tale, Aeneas was an ancient ancestor of Romulus and Remus, the two brothers who were reared by a she-wolf and later founded the mighty city of Rome.) It was a Sibyl of this cave that guided Aeneas’ journey into the Underworld. Tony and Annalisa descend into this place of history and myth, but Tony still thinks primarily of business. Annalisa, although a cutthroat business-minded Boss herself, moves more easily in the world of legend and magic. She burns her nail clippings so that her enemies can’t use them to concoct a curse against her. It is she who brings up the story of the beautiful and prophetic Sibyl. It is only at this point that Tony really thinks of something other than business – Annalisa and the legendary Sybil make him think of Dr. Melfi. Therapy sessions are arguably the only times in Tony’s life when he explores his own myths and beliefs – Melfi acts as a guide to the Underworld of his own psyche. (Although he does sometimes treat therapy as a business seminar, using Melfi’s advice to become a more effective mob boss.) The scene in the cave shares a compositional element to the scenes in Melfi’s office: the characters are placed centrally, to create depth behind them and emphasize the three-dimensionality of the characters and the spaces they inhabit. The fables and places of ancient myth, like psychotherapy, attempt to explore Man in his full dimension:
Chase has a deep understanding of space, almost like an architect. Upon rewatching this scene, I was immediately reminded of architect Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Chapel. From outside, the chapel looks like a modernist concrete block dropped onto the German countryside. But the interior feels prehistoric, almost cavelike. Zumthor’s chapel and Chase’s scene both use simple forms, elemental materials, natural light and shadow to create evocative, mythical spaces.
Even in the mystical cave, Tony is eager to get back to business. He rejects Annalisa’s come-on, flatly telling her, “I don’t shit where I eat…It’s business.” We know that he is attracted to Annalisa because we caught a glimpse of his dream in which desire, mythology and Italian history all converged. But he ignores this dream, choosing his bottom line over her shapely bottom. His single-mindedness results in a major payday: he scores a large profit on his inventory, and obtains Furio as well.
Carmela has mythologised the institution of marriage. Much of this is due to her Catholic faith, according to which marriage is a sacrament and divorce is a sin. Those who get remarried after a divorce can be barred from receiving Communion. Carmela is distressed to hear her friend Angie Bonpensiero say that she is thinking of divorcing Pussy. Much of Carm’s distress comes from the fact that she shares many of Angie’s frustrations.
I need to make a correction about Tony in Italy. He wasn’t completely devoted to business during his entire visit; there was a moment, when the negotiations had completely broken down, that Tony started to make a move on Annalisa. If Annalisa hadn’t killed the moment, it is a virtual certainty that Tony would have cheated on his wife with the Italian beauty. Chase cuts from this scene to Angie’s house:
It is an ironic edit: just after we see Tony make his advances, we see Carmela try hard to save her friend’s marriage because she has conflated it to her own marriage. The juxtaposition of the two scenes also underscores the differences between Annalisa and Carmela. Annalisa Zucca is a Mob Wife who has been able to achieve autonomy and fullness as a woman; she is a loving mother, responsible daughter, powerful mob Boss, respected leader and beautiful seductress. Carmela, on the other hand, has allowed herself to be hemmed in by the restraints that the culture of the American Mafia has put on her. Parvati is fairly accurate in her description of how women get reduced to a simple binary in the Mafia mind, and how American Mob Wives are content to live diminished lives: “Madonna–Whore is the full equation, I believe…clothes and appliances and houses…”
The four characters, like all of us, use their myths and beliefs as scaffolding to construct their lives. In the last few minutes of the episode, the four seem to recognize that some of their scaffolding is a bit flimsy. Carmela looks disappointed by Tony’s return, and is becoming disabused of the Catholic notion that her marriage was consecrated by God Himself. Chris has to buy Adriana a gift from the Newark airport, after allowing heroin to make a hash of his time in Italy. Tony repeats twice how well they made out, businesswise, to Pussy’s questions about the Old Country, as though trying to convince himself that his financial profit makes up for all the cultural wealth he lost out on during the trip. Paulie is quiet and looks out the car window, having learned a thing or two about enchantment (and disenchantment). The vistas that they see as they drive back from the airport are the same sights that they’ve been looking at their entire lives (and vistas that we’ve seen in previous episodes as well):
While some of the Italian scenes and settings are heavy with mythological and historical heft, some of the American scenes in this episode are the opposite – they convey our culture’s kitschy superficiality. Early in the episode, Pussy meets Skip Lipari at the “Party Box.” This type of store probably doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world – a big-box retailer filled with all the cheap, corny commodities that we have been convinced are necessary for our baptisms, birthdays, graduations and retirements. At the Party Box, Pussy runs into—of course—an Elvis impersonator. Pussy believes that the run-in has compromised him, so he goes to Jimmy Bones’ house to ball peen hammer him to death amidst his schmaltzy Elvis furnishings. Our consumerist superficiality is also apparent when Pussy picks the guys up from the airport, and he reduces their journey to a line from the old Contadina commercial: “Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?” We are awash in slogans and jingles, they worm their way into our heads and we never even think to defend against them. We are the inheritors of great American historical and artistic traditions, but it’s never the words of Whitman or Thomas Jefferson that issue forth from our lips – it’s always “Good to the last drop” or “Just do it!”
The tendency to romanticize foreign places isn’t just an American characteristic, it is a human trait. The senile Italian mobster Vittorio has mythologised American roads (such as the Major Deegan Expressway and Wilshire Boulevard).
- Tony tells the guys here that his favorite Godfather scene is when Vito goes back to Italy [in G. II]; we might remember that Carmela told this tidbit about Tony to Father Phil in the Pilot episode.
- Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partiro” plays at the restaurant when Angie first tells her friends how disappointed she was when Pussy returned home. It plays again in the final scene when Carmela feels some disappointment at Tony’s return. We first heard the song in the season opener, and we will hear it again later.
- Bocelli’s soaring, romantic song gives way to the pop Euro-rap “Piove” over the credits. Chase de-romanticises till the very end.