One of my favorite communication professors when I was in college, Dr. Leroy Dorsey, was fond of inserting references to Goodfellas into his lectures. He’d frequently quote the film (particularly the events of the film, not the dialog, teaching me something valuable about movies – it’s the movement that matters) and then stop to say, “What is it about that film? I’ve seen it a hundred times, but if it’s on I’ll sit down and watch the whole thing.” I was unimpressed by the film at the time, but his love of it prompted me to keep pursuing it over the years, trying to figure out why Dr. Dorsey and so many others seem to love it so much.
Goodfellas has grown on me. On my most recent viewing, I understood that the film presents an aspirational vision of humanity. The film, like its protagonist, Henry Hill, looks at the mobsters, their camaraderie, the social order that ties them together, the good they work in each others’ lives, and wishes it could really be true. Henry wishes he could be part of it. For a while, he almost is. The film wishes we could all be part of a community like that. Of course, by the end of the film, we realize that what we are seeing is Henry’s recollection of what happened and what it was like to be part of “the family.” Perhaps very little of it is true. Many people who love Goodfellas love the camaraderie and chalk the film’s more unsavory elements up to the foolishness of individual characters.
Given that we have Goodfellas to help us question the beneficence of nostalgia, the quality of community possible in modern America, and the way ways the two influence each other, one might wonder if we also need The Family. If we value Goodfellas and its antecedents like The Sopranos only as cinematic objects without considering the more pertinent questions they ask, we most certainly do. The Family, by presenting the “mobsters writing his memoirs” story as a farce, tackles the subject of nostalgia directly.
The “Blake” family is in hiding following their patriarch, Giovanni’s, decision to turn informant for the FBI. They’ve been in hiding for a while, actually, given each family member’s tendency to turn to violence to solve their problems and the FBI’s subsequent need to move them around. Their latest hiding place is a small village in Normandy. I think this is because the film is a French production from the source novel’s author right down to the second assistant cameraman. It certainly takes a hefty dose of coincidences for the America-bound bad guys to find out where the Blakes are hiding later in the film. The FBI is doing a fantastic job hiding the family.
Watching The Family, one gets the feeling that we are seeing simply one revolution of a wicked cycle in which the Blakes are trapped, and they’re trapped there by their own unwillingness to change their perspective on their past. Maybe because “mobsters” are the only identity they have, but they each cling to that identity and the actions warranted by it like they’re choking the life out of an enemy. Through the film, almost all of them come to realize the necks they’re squeezing are their own.
Ostensibly, memory, or experience, is a good foundation for life. We ought to build on what we know. But memory proves unreliable. We’re prone to exaggerating the past, highlighting particularly vibrant moments and blowing them out of proportion, whether they be positive or negative experiences. We need some other reality to base our lives on, some other identity, some set of values other than the ones we create based on our experience.
The Blakes don’t have anything else. They each want something else though. Most poignantly, the daughter, Belle, thinks romantic love is the way out, though she tries to get it the way she gets everything else, via violence. The son, Warren, wants to built his own life, independent of his family. The mother, Maggie, tries to escape into religious devotion (more on that in a moment). And finally the father, Giovanni/Fred, escapes into his legacy.
Maggie’s scenes with the priest are particularly disheartening, though they do make the film’s French roots strikingly evident. Maggie is expelled from a church, because her sins are too much for the priest to handle. This sequence accomplishes two things. One, it obfuscates the fact that no sins are too big for God. Two, it demonstrates how no “man of God” is God. Even priests are prone to unforgiveness.
What a shame. The church could have provided the escape the family wants, if not from the worldly consequences of their sins, at least from their emotional and relational turmoil and the cyclical violence they are caught in. Like at the end of Goodfellas, I found myself wanting to tell those characters about Jesus, about the hope he offers, and about the eternal escape he provides, and that’s not an escape into eternity, but an escape that never needs to be repeated. Once you’re free, you’re free for good no matter what strange coincidences conspire to bring your past back up again.