The Italian way of death


Illustration by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

italians are masters of the concrete, from the vast engineering projects of the Roman Empire to the gritty manual labor of Renaissance painting and sculpture to our domination of the trade in paving, masonry, iron work, garden ornaments and gravestones in modern America. We specialize in the markers and monuments of the messy human transit of birth and death.

Italians view death in simple, pragmatic terms, as a physical process to be efficiently planned and managed. Our culture is strongly ritualistic, with the public theatricality of early tribalism. Italian funerals are major events in which, despite our reputation for histrionics, extreme emotion is allowed only sporadic display. The gravity and dignity of Italian funerals predate Catholic ceremonialism and probably originate in the Etruscan death cult, whose inspiration may have been Egyptian.

As an Italian-American, I was raised with respect for, but not fear of, death. Italians dread incapacity and dependency, not extinction. Since the dead are always remembered, they are never really gone. In rural Italy, cemeteries are like parks where the survivors picnic and tend the graves. In America, family plots are purchased like vacation condos; one knows one's future address decades in advance.

An education in death is part of the Italian facts of life. From childhood, I was accustomed not only to seeing the dead laid out in open caskets but to kissing the corpse's chilly forehead on the morning of burial. At home, elderly relatives burned votive candles before photographs of the deceased. Anniversaries of the date of death, recorded on plasticized saints' cards, are still marked by special Masses and devotions.

The Italian realism about death was formed by the primitive harshness of agricultural life, where food, water, shelter and sex are crucial to survival. Country people are notoriously blunt and unsentimental about accidents and disasters, which traumatize today's squeamish, overprotected middle-class professionals. Bobbie Gentry's 1967 hit song, "Ode to Billie Joe", preserves something of that premodern flavor when a crusty farmer, indifferent to his daughter's feelings, reacts to the news of a young man's fatal plunge off a bridge by remarking, "Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please."

The steely Italian stoicism and even irreverence about death have often gotten me into trouble in American academe, where bourgeois pieties reign supreme. Hamlet's black humor about Polonius' corpse--"I'll lug the guts into the neighbor room" (III.iv.213)--is very Italian. Informed of a death, we shun the usual polite, unctuous hush and take great interest instead in the technicalities: "How did it happen?" Italians recognize both the inevitability of death and its unique grisly signature, which seems fascinating to us in a way that strikes other people as morbid or insensitive. And as in TV soap operas, we like prolonged debate about how a death will affect others -- pathos and voyeurism as mass entertainment.

Movies about Italian-Americans have rarely caught our essence. We are, after blacks, the most defamed and stereotyped minority group. The overpraised "Prizzi's Honor" (1985) and "Moonstruck" (1987), for example, are grotesquely bad, with all the ethnic verisimilitude of a minstrel show. Woody Allen's films, in contrast, convey a keen sense of America's social codes as perceived by an anxious, alienated Jew. Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984) deserves more attention for its comparison study of Italian and Jewish style and thought, notably in regard to death.

Allen's fixation on death is well known, a haunted pessimism partly produced by the persecutions of Jewish history. But Allen turns his terrors into candidly self-revealing comedy, which is why I prefer his work to that of overly ironic literary modernists like T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett. In "Annie Hall" (1977), his alter ego, Albie Singer (played by himself), announces, "I'm obsessed with death," as he presents two books as love gifts to the perky, ultra-WASPy Annie (Diane Keaton) after their first sexual encounter -- "The Denial of Death" and "Death in Western Thought." The film's amusing refrain is Albie's attempt to re-educate Annie by repeatedly taking her to Max Ophuls' dour, four-hour epic on Nazism, "The Sorrow and the Pity." Busily packing boxes after their break-up, she reminds him, "All the books on death and dying are yours."

In "Broadway Danny Rose," Allen plays a compassionate, ethical Jew for whom suffering and death define the human condition. He belongs to an exquisitely internalized guilt culture: "I'm guilty all the time, and I never did anything," he says. Danny has a madcap adventure with a tough New Jersey broad named Tina (brilliantly played by Mia Farrow), whose honor-based, vendetta-filled shame culture is completely Italian: "I never feel guilty. You gotta do what you gotta do," she proclaims. Her slangy speech has an aggressive Mediterranean flamboyance: "You're lucky I don't stick an ice pick in your goddamned chest!" she yells at her lover as she trashes the apartment. "Drop dead!"

Allen wonderfully catches the brusquely routine Italian attitude toward death when Danny drives Tina away from a (somewhat caricatured) Mafia party. He asks if she and her husband are divorced. "Some guy shot him in the eyes," she says casually. "Really," says Danny, horrified. "He's blind?" "Dead," she flatly replies. Danny cringes with pained, nauseated empathy: "Dead? Of course -- because the bullets go right through -- [gestures behind his glasses]. Oh, my God! You must have been in shock!" "Nah," she replies, "he had it coming." Ethnicity has reversed the sex roles here, with a man about to faint from a woman's bloodthirsty braggadocio.

That the Italian directness about death is part of a more general world view is clear in the first two parts of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972, 1974). Genuine masterpieces of our time, they dramatically demonstrate the residual paganism of Italian culture, with its energy, passion, clannishness and implacable willfulness. The abrupt, choreographic violence of these films is like a sacrificial slaughter where blood flows as freely as the water of life. Coppola constantly intercuts images of food and death to suggest the archaic Italian, or rather pre-Christian, cycle of fertility, destruction and rebirth.

Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), Don Corleone's right-hand man, is the primary vehicle of this theme. "Don't forget the cannolis!" his wife calls out to him from the front porch. On a highway outside New York, he says, "Hey, pull over, will ya -- I gotta take a leak." While his back is turned, three shots blast into the driver's skull from the back seat. Ambling back to the car, Clemenza curtly commands his henchman, "Leave the gun. Take the cannolis." The white pastry box is lifted from its place next to the corpse bloodily jammed against the steering wheel, and burly, obese Clemenza primly carries the pastries away. Now, that's Italian!

In another scene, the don's inner circle awaits news of his critical condition after an assassination attempt. Clemenza is cheerfully making tomato sauce. "Hey, come over here, kid," he calls to the don's youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino). "Learn sumpin'. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys some day!" Instructions follow on oil, garlic, tomato paste. "You shove in all your sausage and your meatballs": As Clemenza's big, hammy hand slides the grey meats into the pot, we can't help thinking of the corpses piling up in the plot. And indeed his next remark, in response to a discreet query, is about the roadside execution: "Oh, Paulie--you won't see him no more!" Cooking and killing are as intimately related as in the Stone Age, with past guests easily ending up on the menu.

One of "The Godfather's most gruesome rub-outs occurs at Louis' Restaurant, "a small family place" in the Bronx where the first unsuspecting target, a Mafia chieftain, advises the other, a corrupt police captain, "Try the veal -- it's the best in the city." Moments later, Michael Corleone, their dinner companion, shoots them both in the face. The astonished captain, laden fork raised over his bib, chokes and gurgles as if still chewing, then slams head first on the table, bringing everything down with a huge crash. As Michael flees, we can see the overturned table stained with red splotches that could be wine, tomato sauce or blood -- or perhaps, in the Italian way, all three. Coppola then inserts a montage of headlines with real police photos of blood-drenched gangland executions, ending with a shot of a big bowl of leftover spaghetti being spooned into a garbage can. Sic transit gloria mundi.

"The Godfather" is full of these vivid visual effects, with death represented as a barbarically sensual experience, integrated with the normal and abnormal functions and spasms of the body. For example, in his famous final scene as Don Corleone, Marlon Brando, making monster teeth out of orange peel, frolics with his grandson among his tomato plants in the arbor that is a recreated patch of Italy. Death comes quickly but subtly: The don's steps turn to a stagger, and his laughter becomes gasps for air, until his heavy form topples and sprawls on the ground. Or death can be a terrible explosion of the nerves, as when the don's unfaithful, pretty boy son-in-law, Carlo, is garroted from behind by Clemenza and convulsively kicks out the windshield of a moving car.

My favorite scene in "The Godfather" shows the Italian cultivation of death as an artistic strategy, a tour de force of hands-on activism. The young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) revisits Sicily to settle an old score -- the murder of his family by the ruthless Don Ciccio. Vito and his business partner, bearing a gallon of olive oil, respectfully approach the now infirm don, who asks, "What was your father's name?" Leaning in close on the sunny veranda, Vito softly replies, "His name was Antonio Andolini, and this is for you" -- and sticks the don with a knife, ripping his gut crosswise to the top of his chest. Magnificent and inspiring, in my Homeric view. "Turn the other cheek" has never made much of a dent in Italian consciousness. Death Italian style is a luscious banquet, a bruising game of chance, or crime and punishment as pagan survival of the fittest.

Camille Paglia is Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is the author of "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson," "Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays" and "Vamps & Tramps" (Vintage).

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