Bonnano: A Godfather's Story (1999): A Movie Review Essay

The first thing to say, here, is that I am talking about the one-off television movie called Bonnano: A Godfather’s Story, initially released in July of 1999.

Apparently, there is also a miniseries, of which I was previously unaware. We are just talking about the movie.

Now, I was surprised to be reminded of the fact that the film is nearly three hours long. The movie does not at all feel three hours long (2hrs 50 mins).

Now then, IMDb tells us that this movie is: “The true life story of mafia boss Joseph Bonnano. The story spans from Bonnano’s early beginnings in Italy, to his conquests in America.”

Before we get started with the review, we have to unpack that IMDb statement. You see, I have no doubt that the film is “based on,” the life of Joseph Bonnano and “inspired by” true life events and “drawn from” the narrative, as related by Bill Bonnano (his son) and Joseph Bonnano himself — I understand that they had both written books.

No doubt they wanted to “set the record straight,” as it were.

Whatever the case may be, the makers of this film did not forget to use all that “gritty reality,” and so foth, to make an entertaining movie.

Unfortunately, the makers of The Panic in Needle Park (1971) did forget to take all of that “gritty reality” and make an entertaining movie out of it.

Though, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the makers of The Panic sacrificed any and all entertainment value of the film, in the form of an actual forward-moving dramatic story, in favor of grittiness — I mean… GRITTINESS.

When I took a look at The Panic, I said that it is a bad movie because it lacks a fundamental grand motivation. I went further and said that the film had no business being a dramatic fictional movie; I believed then, as I do now, that the project would have been infinitely better served as a documentary, much like the brilliant Showtime documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp.

I also made the point that if Iceberg had been made into a dramatic fictional movie, it would almost certainly have been mediocre-to-poor.


Because most people’s lives do not have fundamental grand motivation. In other words, most people’s lives are not cinematic. Perhaps in the case of the most colorful of people, their lives can seem, or be made to seem, rather cinematic in retrospect. This can be attempted by forcefully infusing “fundamental grand motivation” into areas of X person’s life, where it did not exist.

Now, I am unfamiliar with the writings of Bill and Joe Bonnano. Therefore, I have no way of knowing to what extent, and to what level of, shall we say, integrity, with which those writings were drawn upon to make this film (and miniseries).

For that matter, I could not possibly hope to have any idea about the integrity with which the Bonnanos chronicled their story.

However, it is said that everyone is the hero of his own life. It is certainly in that spirit that this “true life story of mafia boss Joseph Bonnano” is given to us. In a way, this movie does really deliver the “hero’s journey,” as it were.

What makes this a superior crime film, is precisely the fact that it does not, in any way, dwell on the specific mechanics of any crime. The whole thing is stylized and strangely ennobled in the form of a wonderful voice-over narration by Tony Nardi, who plays Joseph Bonnano from the ages ranging from his fifties to seventies, I would say.

Anyway, the opening narration is beautiful. He talks to us about how “Mafia is a process, not a thing,” and that “what makes this process work” is such things like loyalty, friendship, connections, and so forth.

From the very outset, Narrator Bonnano earnestly pronounces the idea that “mafia” is a total way of life, demanding a total commitment to tradition, and to honor — at least, an internal sense of honor: honor to one’s Mafia organization or “family,” and honor to the “Cosa Nostra,” as it were, as a whole, across the country.

In other words: Lie, cheat, and steal. But don’t lie, cheat, and steal from us!

In an early scene we scene Godfather Bonnano sternly expressing his grave disappointment with a Bonnano “Family” operative, who has been less than one hundred percent accurate in his accounts.

“You have cheated your family,” Godfather Bonnano said. “People who gave you their trust.”

I’m not angry, my boy. Just very, very disappointed.

The operative was not killed, for what turned out to be several transgressions along these lines. Instead, he was exiled and banished, sent back to Sicily, where he would be, effectively blacklisted among the underworld. This could mean utter financial ruin for him.

Another time we see Godfather Bonnano persuading his fellow Family “Bosses” to help the United States, in World War Two, with their plans to invade Sicily, and kick the fascists out.

He makes an impassioned, moving little speech. After which, one of his colleagues say, “You know, Joe. You should have been a politician.”

Another colleague says: “A priest is more like it.”

Good Old Joe, ever the sober realist with his eye on the ball, retorts: “Its not about politics or religion. IT’S ABOUT WHO WE ARE!

Another time we see Joseph Bonnano confront the crisis of his son, “Bill.” Bill pulls a small-time hold up job. He and a partner are held in jail for a time. But because of who his father is, Bill is released to his old man’s custody.

Well, Joe reads the boy the riot act, concluding his rant with the statement: “It’s not what I expect of you.”

Then Bill — cue the violins — says, “I never see you, Dad.”

Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?

Time to bring the boy into the “family business,” and make a proper criminal out of him.

This is precisely what happens, of course. And Bill does exceedingly well in his apprenticeship — so well that he earns the right to become a ‘made’ member of the Mob.

We see a tastefully furnished room, full of dignified-looking, suited gentlemen looking at the doorway. In comes Bill. His father is waiting for him, smiling from ear-to-ear, proud.

Father and son embrace and kiss; and the room full of gentlemen applaud.

If it seems like I’ve been making fun of this movie, I haven’t been. I think this lesser known film, in its way, is every bit as good as the first “The Godfather” film — and that one is a classic!

The Godfather has more of an epic, sweeping historical feel than Bonnano. Nevertheless, the latter operates at the same elevated, dignified level as the former. And Tony Nardi (Godfather Bonnano) is every bit as charismatic and mesmerizing as screen presence as Marlon Brando as Godfather Vito Corleone.

I give this film an easy 9 out of 10. I would have happily paid the price to see this in theaters.

Now, this elevated, dignified level is achieved by both films, by way of their not focusing on the specifics of crime.

Question: How do you make a hero out of a criminal?

Answer: By designating one thing — THE ONE THING — that he will not do, even though all of his criminal colleagues are doing it. The one thing should be pretty bad, arguably more bad than all the other criminal activity that he and his colleagues are engaged in.

Question: Pray tell. Whatever could that “one thing” be?

Answer: Drugs. As in narcotics. As in — wait for it — illicit substances.

In another scene, we see Godfather Bonnano, exquisitely attired as always, somberly intoning to his similarly outfitted colleagues, around a picnic table in the afternoon sunshine — that “there are two things OUR TRADITION have always frowned on.” Those two things are prostitution and narcotics.

Godfather Bonnano talks about it in a practical way. Look at Lucky Luciano who “used to sit with us around this table — a powerful man.” But where is he now?

He is exiled back to Sicily.


Because “his name has been tainted with prostitution and narcotics.”

Godfather Bonnano seems to be one of the last hold outs for the old ways. However, the group seems generally persuaded by Vito Genovese’s (the actor playing the mobster) argument that, while gambling and labor racketeering are the “best things” to be involved with “right now,” like it or not narcotics is the coming thing, the wave of the future.

You see, the astronomical profits, and therefore the vast power that can be bought with them, are just too much to be ceded to others. This, incidentally, is the argument that Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) made to his Godfather Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) in The Godfather — a film that Bonnano: A Godfather’s Story very much resembles, but not so much as to be called “derivative,” or anything like that.

Anyway, the refusal on the part of one crime family Don to engage in the narcotics trade, provides the main source of the tension.

Godfather Bonnano feels like a dinosaur in a new, more troubling world. He expresses the desire to leave the big city behind and “retire to my interests in Arizona” (not necessarily to get out of the crime business, per se).

Anyhow, his some of his colleagues, eager to get their hands on what would have been his slice of the pie, from the narcotics trade Bonnano will have no part of — seek to hurry his departure — through violence, if necessary.

Spoiler Alert: They should not have tried to do that!

Thank you for reading!

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