Documentaries about families tend to feature similar ingredients: home movies, scanning over old photos of holidays and birthdays, the voiceover of older and wiser members disclosing hidden chaos or recovered secrets. Usually, these films highlight the prism of familial perspective, various truths that inevitably diverge with those in close proximity. We the spectators are welcomed into a private process of resolution which is only sometimes successful. To me, the power dynamics, especially those dependent upon gender, are most fascinating.
In Our Godfather, directors Mark Franchetti and Andrew Meier unveil the layered machismo of a major figure in the Italian Mafia, Tommaso Buscetta. There are multiple familial frames in this film: the Mafia is certainly one family, along with immediate family, extended family, and the support network within the FBI/DEA that emerges during 30 years of witness protection. Each is affected differently by Buscetta’s choices, which often boil down to conflicting codes of honor.
In the mid-1980s, Buscetta became a key informant linking drug trafficking in Italy, Brazil, and the United States to the Cosa Nostra. He broke a code of silence because the Mafia broke their code of honor. He saw a dozen family members, including two sons, killed as a result of infighting and intimidation. He describes the old world of glorious Mafia ritual and devotion, as opposed to the new world of blood and betrayal. He says that drugs were the turning point, when everyone got richer and then started killing each other.
It’s hard to buy this representation, clearly an extreme romanticization of the old guard. The documentary keeps us at a distance from Buscetta’s specific role. We know he was a “Don” and could lay out macro structures and language of criminal enterprises, but what was his job exactly? I’m still left wondering.
I think it’s important to note, almost as an aside, how Buscetta is described during his testimony and by media outlets covering the testimony. He’s referred to with such scolding derision most of the time, it’s almost as if they wish he hadn’t turned on the Mafia. To see the collective begrudging acknowledgment of information versus criminal secrecy is quite odd. I guess it illuminates just how much social weight we place on loyalty.
Men of violence and men of honor are intertwined in this film. “Men of Honor” were those who had killed at least once in the name of the Cosa Nostra — it was the official term. We hear stories of barely suppressed glee at the potential for violence in the name of the “family.” It’s part of the indoctrination of any criminal organization and such a primal psychological hook. Roberto Buscetta, one of Tommaso’s sons who saw and suffered the worst of his father’s potential, is even seen at a firing range training for any potential confrontation with his father’s past. You want to shake your head and sigh.
Roberto and Tommaso’s third wife, Cristina, are central voices of the film, guiding the timeline and explaining both big and small moments in a kind of auto-ethnography. Cristina is a steadfast Brazilian powerhouse, taking in children from Tommaso’s other marriages and shielding them amidst years of separation from her husband. Tommaso was often in jail or hiding during early days of witness protection, before they could be reunited and hidden as a family in Florida.
The first half of the film is essentially Tommaso’s story, the second half is theirs. We switch from dire jeopardy to familial growth and strain within the boundaries of state protection. How does a family bond, protect information, test their strength over 30 years in hiding? How many times did they move and why? These are all interesting nuances explored in the second half.
Tommaso’s Italian traditions, his portrayal of masculinity, and his profound identity crisis after exiting the Mafia give the documentary its contemplative core. It isn’t just a portrait, because that seems incomplete. His criminal identity is pushed off to the side in order to examine his familial maneuvering. There are so many oaths and obligations and performances to maintain!
The patriarch died of cancer in 2000, at age 71. Roberto says that Tommaso would roll in his grave if he knew that Cristina was living alone now. I was thinking about how profoundly free she must feel.