Commendatori (2.04)

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

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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.

Chris Moltisanti
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.)

Paulie
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.)

chase's cameo

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.

apollonia

paulie's prostitute

Tony Soprano
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:

devout businessman tony

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:

italy montage

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.  (Though it must be noted that Tony often treats his sessions with Melfi as nothing more than a business seminar, using her 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:

tony and annalisa in cave

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.  Chase’s scene, like Zumthor’s chapel, uses simple forms, elemental materials, natural light and shadow to create an evocative, mythical space.

bruder klaus chapel

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 gets the right to bring Furio back to the United States as well.

tony dream as centurion

Carmela
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:

annalisa vs. carmela

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: “MadonnaWhore 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):

jersey while driving1smokestack

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 Agent 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 and trinkets.  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!”

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ADDITIONAL POINTS:

  • 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.

22 responses to “Commendatori (2.04)

  1. Would you say it took too long for Chase to ferritt out Chris’s drug problem. He was shooting heroin for chrissake! I doubt he would have been able to maintain a look of stability over all these episodes until it was finally brought to the front and had to enter hehab. I think Chris had been relegated to a backseat role and all of a sudden it was “geez what happened to Chris we need to bring him back” Could this be a case of having to juggle too many characters and storylines??

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    • Good point Bill, it takes more than 2.5 years after “Commendatori” for Chris to finally enter rehab. The world is full of high-functioning alcoholics but high-functioning dopefiends are pretty rare. Chris may have taken a backseat role, but characters come in and out of the spotlight throughout the series. (And besides, the long-running storyline of the FBI getting their hooks into Adriana wouldn’t be so compelling if her boyfriend Chris wasn’t a major player in SopranoLand; and “Pine Barrens” wouldn’t be the same if it was Paulie and Silvio lost in the woods.) But yeah, there might be something questionable about how long it took Chase to really address Chris’ addiction.

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    • I could be wrong, but I always read Christopher’s relationship with drugs as starting just as an occasional thing he did sometimes. Way back in season one I believe that he and Brendan Filone did crank (crystal meth) together. But over time, the drug abuse grew into something bigger and uglier just as his disillusionment with his life and the path he was on “following Tony into the gates of hell”.

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    • The Savvy Svengali

      Now that you bring that up…I wonder why the doctors didn’t find traces of heroin in Chris’ blood after he got shot later this season.

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      • What difference would that have made? Even if they had, they wouldn’t have said anything to him around anyone else because of medical privacy laws, so its not like Tony would have found out about the heroin abuse because of his shooting.

        Even then there were HIPAA and other medical privacy laws, so they probably found it, but rightly would not have said anythng.

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    • My take on that is that Chris experimented with a lot of drugs in the first few seasons but didn’t actually become a full-blown daily heroin user/addict until we see him in the Season 4 premiere, shooting up between his toes. It’s fairly common for a lot of addicts to take a little while, even a few years, to start using the drug to such an extent that they are physically addicted and/or unable to function or hide their habit. The only thing that makes it weird is that Chris would already have graduated to shooting instead of smoking or snorting, in this episode, and yet not become a full-blown addict for two more years — but it does happen.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron thanks for your reply, but I think that only goes to proving my point. Yes Chris was prominent in the “Pine Barrens” episode, but that was only to further his conflict with Paulie Walnuts, and we know his character(Sirico) was pretty much written out of season 4 given his back issue. Perhaps Chase wasn’t counting on his health issues, but in-turn this allowed him to go in a new direction with Adriana and bringing out her character. I guess what i’m saying it was more about fleshing out Adriana( her being a CW, all the action that takes place at Crazy Horse) than it was about furthering the Chris M. character. I think maybe Imperiolli wanted to do more writing perhaps, but only had two(??) of his scripts make it to production.

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    • You make a good argument, especially the point that Imperioli may have wanted to focus more on writing (I believe he scripted 5 episodes). I think Chris may also have become less prominent because he mellowed out a little bit over time. He was a real hot-head in season 1 but he was overshadowed later by hotheads Richie, Ralphie, Feech, Phil Leotardo, etc. The camera tends to gravitate towards the crazy folks.

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  3. I can agree with that. Chris was obviously a central character, going all the way back to the Pilot episode when they beat Mahaffy, but for “unknown” reasons ended up in the background. I never bought his character as a mob “toughie” anyway, he wasn’t physically imposing, and was weakened with his drug problem. Really enjoy your site and am anxiously awaiting in-depth breakdown of more episodes. I myself have begun buying the dvd boxsets when I can find them at a discount price.

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  4. I think it’s also worth mentioning the analogy between the cave tony and Annelisa enter and platos analogy of the cave, obviously that analogy concerns the idea that human beings are not in touch with reality and must do some introspection to see it truly ( just accept that idea for the purpose of the argument). Tonys personal journey can be seen as that of an ignorant man, who with the help of Dr Melfi tries vainly to escape his personal “cave” of beliefs, myths and biases. In this context another beautiful cultured Italian woman (” you remind me of someone” tries to help him escape his myopic money focus and allow himself to be taken in by the beauty of sexuality ( who is so exceptional she could be said to constitute the platonic ideal of a woman) but he resists, preferring the comfort of his habitual money addiction. Christopher, in a far more literal sense, regresses into his addictions which are one of the things that keep him trapped ( along with movies) and blindly striving towards the shadowy illusion of corporeal pleasure instead of gaining any real self knowledge or satisfaction as the series progresses. I believe annalisa mentions the oracles and Greeks as a way of highlighting to the viewer this connection.

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  5. By the way, I forgot to acknowledge you on your excellent website! I have really enjoyed reading it and think it’s very insightful. Every time I read someone else’s soprano analysis I learn new things, it’s very exciting..

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’d like to add my thanks for all the analysis — your perspective is always interesting and I also learn new things that escaped me during two viewings of the series.

    One issue I’ d like to raise — not related to this episode — is whether Livia really wanted Tony to be killed. It seems to me there was some equivocal talk/behavior on her part.

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    • Thanks Joe. I think you’re right that some of Livia’s words/behavior were equivocal, but I interpreted that as her ability to talk out of both sides of her mouth. By purposely being vague, she makes it difficult for anyone to pin any murderous motivations to her. Even Tony had a hard time believing his mother wanted him killed (at least until the FBI played him a recording of Livia talking to Corrado).

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  7. Fine job! Just had a question, the painting up top looks familiar, but I can’t place it.. Is it one of the impressionists?

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  8. Interesting that you describe Tonys deal with Annalisa as a “mayor payday”. I interpreted the scene as him being played by her using her sexuality. She gets the price of the cars down from 90k apiece to 75k on the premise that Tony gets Furio and “other guys”. Tony repeating two times what a good deal he made in the ride from the aiport seems to me like him trying to rationalize that “a fuckin’ woman boss” got the better deal off him. You can also tell pretty instantly from his facial expressions after the deal is made that he realizes what has happened. Although maybe the actual deal wasn’t as bad as the hit to his pride, the 90k price was most probably intentionally high from the start to leave some room for haggling.

    And thank you for your great posts, they make me realize new things about each episode! This is the first thing I don’t agree fully with.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think it is noteworthy that the “sweeping music” which plays as Tony is being chauffeured is “Core ‘Ngrato” (which means ungrateful heart), the same song Uncle Junior sings at the end of Season 3.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I tried to use a translate program to understand what the old guy at the table says in Italian right after tony says the Mercedes are made in america. I think it starts with ‘cooked by’ , but I can’t get the last part, and it may also be more telling in the gesture of the guy dragging his thumb down his cheek in that particular way. Tony immediately quips ‘ what the fuck did he say?’ But the story moves on without being answered. Anyone know this gesture or the actual translation?

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  11. joegagan, I am italian and I can help you to understand the scene.

    the old guy is speaking in neapolitan dialect. he says “so’ dei figli e’ndrocchia, ah” . that means, they are sons of a bitch, but in the sense of: he’s very astute, smart, crafty guy. also added with a mix of appreciation and complicity in doing tricky business. this is all resumed in the gesture of the thumb going down the cheek

    and, this website is a great place where to have further enjoyment for this awesome series

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Fantastic write up… The last sentence really encapsulates what this episode is all about. We have great history as a species and individual cultures, but however much we choose to revere it doesn’t really matter… the pressures of current culture permeate.

    Liked by 1 person

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