American auteur Francis Ford Coppola has made multiple gems like Apocalypse Now over the course of his illustrious career, but his 1972 crime epic The Godfather is considered by many to be his magnum opus. Based on the seminal novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather series has become the definitive masterpiece of the gangster genre. Its influence is too vast to be measured, evident in other celebrated works like The Sopranos.
Funnily enough, Coppola had a hard time with getting people on board for his first epic. When the plans for the project were first announced, almost everyone expected it to be yet another uninspired gangster flick. Little did they know that they were witnessing the creation of history, an opus of unprecedented scope and ambition that would change the world of cinema forever.
Coppola recalled: “I don’t know if 30 directors turned down The Godfather, but definitely some directors did. There had been a movie a year or so before The Godfather based on a novel called The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas. It was a big studio production, sort of about the Mafia. It was not successful. When The Godfather proposition came out, a lot people thought, ‘That won’t work.'”
Adding, “Hollywood is very quick to judge what can work and what can’t work. So, the idea didn’t really light a fire with anyone. The movie studio executives concluded, when Puzo’s book first came out, that they would make a movie very cheap and they would get a young guy who knew about the new cost-conscious techniques.”
A major element of The Godfather series’ timeless magic is the mesmerising cinematography and the perfect employment of gorgeous filming locations in Italy, which serve as the perfect contrast to the gritty realism of New York. In order to get a better understanding of the extensive legacy of The Godfather, we take a look at some of the scenic locations in Sicily where filming for the celebrated project took place.
The Sicilian filming locations of The Godfather:
A beautiful small town which is located near Messina, Forza d’Agrò was featured in The Godfather as well as the critically acclaimed sequel. Coppola used the Church of Sant’Agostino to contextualise the first arrival of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in the breathtaking landscape of Sicily.
Featuring Baroque architecture, the church was first built in the 15th century and was reconstructed almost 300 years later. Interested travellers can reach Forza d’Agrò via a car or a train ride from the nearby commune of Taormina. There are various Godfather tour packages which include a detailed exploration of the filming locations in Forza d’Agrò.
In an interview, Coppola looked back on the experience of making The Godfather and concluded that it required a great effort to follow in the footsteps of American auteurs from the ’60s: “For our generation that supposedly flowered in the ’70s, if we had freedom it was because we seized it, not because it was handed to us. We just tried to be as tricky as we could and to out manoeuvre them.”
Another commune in the Messina Province which is situated close to Forza d’Agrò, Savoca played a huge part in the production process of Coppola’s project. The filmmaker intended to “display a more romantic land” by imparting a “softer, more romantic” quality to the scenes in Sicily in comparison to the contrasting sensibilities of New York.
There are many memorable locations in Savoca, including the iconic Bar Vitelli which still looks like it did in the films. Tourists can find the restaurant in the middle of the town, nestled inside a building that dates back to the 18th century.
In walking distance is the Church of Santa Lucia, the memorable place where Michael got married to Apollonia. Similar to the routes of Forza d’Agrò, travellers can take a train or a car from Taormina to Savoca which is usually included in pretty well-rounded tour packages.
Coppola recalled: “I was affiliated with a lot of colleagues from film schools, both UCLA and USC, including my closest colleague at the time, George Lucas. We had a lot of dreams about making the kind of films we had been seeing in the ’50s coming out of Italy and France. We didn’t want to make big, schmaltzy American movies.”
If you take the famous Godfather tour, chances are that you will land up in the historical ruins of the ancient city of Segesta. It was one of the biggest cities of the indigenous people of Sicily until it was finally abandoned in the 13th century by the people still living there.
Although not much of it remains now, it is considered to be a major archaeological site and is also home to a Doric temple which serves as a nearby tourist attraction. The temple was featured in the opening moments of The Godfather III when the Corleone family is on their way to Bagheria.
Coppola admitted: “The Godfather sort of interrupted my career, because I’d always wanted to make a series of films from original screenplays, more in the spirit of the European pictures of the ’50s, but also of the great writers, like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. I wanted to be someone who, when a new movie of mine came out, it would be something no one had ever seen before, because it would have just been written and created.”
This famous village served as the birthplace of various characters from The Godfather including Vito but it was never used as a filming location by Coppola. If you’re wondering why, it’s because the filmmaker felt that the village had been subjected to many changes due to modernity and no longer evoked memories of that period.
Throughout the years, Corleone has facilitated the rise of several mob bosses like Tommy Gagliano and Giuseppe Morello among many others. Now, it acts as a stop on The Godfather tour where visitors can explore the real history of the mafia at the C.I.D.M.A Mafia Museum.
“The Mafia was romanticised in the book,” the director claimed. “And I was filming that book. To do a film about my real opinion of the Mafia would be another thing altogether. But it’s a mistake to think I was making a film about the Mafia. Godfather Part I is a romance about a king with three sons.”
One of the major cities in Italy and the capital of Sicily, Palermo remains a major tourist attraction without having to rely on the connections with The Godfather series. Accessible through airports, bus terminals and a bustling port, getting to Palermo should not be a problem for most aspiring visitors.
Featured in the critically panned 1990 sequel The Godfather III, a few of the film’s final moments took place at the gorgeous opera house, Teatro Massimo. It is the biggest of its kind in Italy and has developed a solid reputation all over Europe for its perfect acoustics.
Constructed as a tribute to King Victor Emanuel II, the Teatro Massimo was inaugurated in 1897. In the scenes shown in The Godfather III, Francis Ford Coppola’s own uncle Anton Coppola – a famous composer can be observed conducting a performance of Cavalleria rusticana at the famous opera house.
The filmmaker explained: “The exciting beginnings of that were in movies like Bonnie and Clyde, which Warren Beatty had managed to pull off using his charm and the fact that he was a movie star. To us, Bonnie and Clyde was a great achievement. Then The Godfather did extremely well financially. So it was an accident, really. If the studios then were as well-organised as they are today, I don’t know that it would have happened.”