02/24/2012 09:31 am ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Pop Culture And My Italian Heritage: Why Americans Love 'The Godfather'

With March marking the fortieth anniversary of "The Godfather" release in movie theatres around the world, Francis Ford Coppola's masterful trilogy of mob films continues to fascinate viewers ranging from President Obama ("my favorite film") to teenagers born years after the final film's release. The one billion dollar box office appeal of the saga leads to one key question: In the supposedly post-ethnic world of the 21st century, why does the Corleone family saga continue to speak to Italians of all nationalities? Yes, audiences respond to the familial, albeit murderous, warmth on display, but 40 years on, what rings truer than ever is the realization that author Mario Puzo and screenwriter/director Coppola delivered- brilliantly-a disquisition on the madness, glory, and failure of the American dream. In exploring that dream in distinctly Italian-American terms, they succeeded in delivering nothing less than the Italianization of American culture.

Even to those who never particularly cared to be Italian. Especially to those who had never cared to be Italian. Like me.

I may be 50 percent Italian genetically-speaking, but in cultural terms, it was the Anglo world of my WASP mother that predominated in an upbringing filled with private schools and country clubs. Faced with mass media images of Italians as uneducated, overbearing goombahs, it wasn't just that I couldn't relate--I wanted no part of being Italian. I couldn't fully understand, much less successfully navigate, the gap between my Italian and Anglo worlds, and if a plausible version of myself was functioning somewhere in the world of adults, I had no idea where he was. No idea, that is, until "The Godfather," or more precisely, "The Godfather Part II" saw the light of day and turned my world upside down.

I was, courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, about to grow up.

Overwhelmed by the 40 foot high image of young Don Vito Corleone gazing at the Statue of Liberty from his quarantined room on Ellis Island, I finally understood the full scope of my grandfather's journey from hardscrabble Pontelandolfo, Italy to L'America. Vito onscreen morphed into my impossibly young grandfather, the 13 year old Orazio Santopietro who arrived at Ellis Island in March 1902 armed only with twenty lira in his pocket and a burning desire to succeed. Intermittently embarrassed at his old world ways as an adolescent, I now was filled with gratitude, and it was all too late. He had died on Christmas Day of 1970, eternally grateful to an America I took for granted.

Francis Ford Coppola had supplied me with missing bits of sense memory and understanding, but surrendering to his seductive vision unexpectedly left me with more questions. Presented with a display of justice Corleone style, I found myself rooting for the triumph of murderous thugs, strangely compelled by men I knew I'd be afraid to meet, men who plumbed the darkness we all hold within. I was, it seems, drawn to exactly what fascinated and frightened me in equal measure. Did I want revenge? Was this what it meant to be Italian?

Well, yes- but "The Godfather" actually succeed in defining what it means to be American, Italian or not. To paraphrase the film's own mantra: "it's personal, not business." The Corleones fight over the very issues that the entire American population fights over: money, power, control, lust and social status. The only 21st century American desire missing from this list is the ever-increasing shrill demand for fame, but, oh, how Don Corleone would have understood the cynical amoral manipulations of the bankers behind the country's 21st century financial crisis.

Forty years later, "The Godfather" endures, its power growing exponentially with each passing year, yet even in the wake of its most brilliant descendant, "The Sopranos," how much has really changed regarding public perception of Italians? A 2009 FBI report indicated that only 0.00782% of Italian-Americans possessed any criminal associations, yet a national Zogby poll found a staggering 75 percent of the American public believed that Italian-Americans have ties to the mob. Am I part of the problem? I may deplore the criminal stereotype yet realize that I can happily quote sections of "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos" from memory.

The difference, I think, resides in the fact that genuine works of art like "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos" present complex, readily identifiable human beings. By way of contrast, the most widely viewed iteration of Italian-American culture on display in America now is found in the one dimensional, increasingly desperate cavortings of the denizens of "Jersey Shore." Is "Jersey Shore" how the journey from early 20th century urban ghetto to suburbia ends- in a caricature just as garish as those embodied by the talk-a-like-a-this Italians of early Hollywood? Who are these people we now see on-screen? If Mario Puzo famously declared that in his youth he never met even one of the singing, happy-go-lucky Italians so beloved of Hollywood, what would he make of these "Jersey Shore" gavonnes flaunting their ignorance. One can only imagine his cynical chuckle at hearing that Jersey Shore's most famous citizen, Snooki Polizzi, was originally offered more money to speak at Rutgers University than Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

I often visit Ellis Island, the visits constituting my own secular prayer of thanks, an acknowledgment of all I never took the time to say while my grandparents were alive. I feel certain that my grandfather would recognize every cynical motive on display in "The Godfather," shaking his head in smiling recognition and understanding the dark underside of L'America which so often crushed the dreams of his fellow paesanos. But maintain his faith in his adopted homeland he did, and when I sit gazing at the Statue of Liberty, I wait for the one absolutely quiet moment when I hear my grandfather whispering to me. I hear him in the very first words of "The Godfather": "I believe in America." Thanks in part to Puzo and Coppola's trilogy, these days I think I do too.

Tom Santopiento is the author of "The Godfather Effect" [Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99]