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As 'Sopranos' Returns, Art Irritates Life

By CLYDE HABERMAN
Published: March 10, 2006

UNLESS you've been hibernating all winter, you probably know that they are back on Sunday, Tony and the gang, that fun- and gun-loving brigade of sociopaths, the kinds who know how to put the Freud in schadenfreude.

After a long break, a new round of "The Sopranos" is about to begin on HBO, to the delight of devotees dying to see who gets whacked next.

But there are others. Some Italian-Americans roll their eyes. Here we go again, they say in resignation — another season of those on-screen gavones, those lowlifes, those embarrassments to themselves and others.

Emanuele Alfano will not be watching. He is director of a group called the Italian-American One Voice Coalition, which would like to be sort of an Anti-Defamation League for Italian-Americans, a flashing light warning of bigotry and harmful stereotyping. Seven years after "The Sopranos" first went on the air, his dismay over it has not waned.

"The attitude toward Italian-Americans, especially those from New Jersey, is that you have to be connected in some way," said Mr. Alfano, who lives in Bloomfield, N.J. " 'The Sopranos' reinforced that attitude a hundredfold."

Worse for him is that the creative forces behind so many Mafia-themed films and television shows are Italian-Americans, people with names like Scorsese, Coppola and De Niro. In the case of "The Sopranos," it is David Chase, original family name De Cesare.

There is nothing really new here. The pros and cons of "The Sopranos" have been argued since its beginning. And for every Mr. Alfano, there is someone who says, Get over it. Mafia movies are today's equivalent of the old westerns, a harmless form of entertainment. One prominent "Sopranos" fan, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, advises some of his fellow Italian-Americans "to be less sensitive."

"You could spend your whole life wanting to be insulted," Mr. Giuliani said a few years ago. "Why?"

Part of the why may be the relentless grip that the Mafia has on popular culture and the news media. Witness the enormous, often inexplicable, attention paid to all things Gotti. That includes the current New York trial of John A. Gotti, whose mob-boss father, even in death, is treated by some newspapers as if he were a cross between Garibaldi and St. Francis of Assisi.

What troubles the writer Helen Barolini is the incomplete picture of Italian-American life that emerges. "I don't mind that it exists," she said of the "Sopranos" series. "Let it exist. But where's all the rest of us?"

Dr. A. Kenneth Ciongoli, board chairman of the National Italian American Foundation, says he enjoys watching "The Sopranos." But he also feels that it has taken "what I as a doctor would call the urban sclerosis of America and superimposed it on Italian-Americans and made it ours."

Urban sclerosis? "Dysfunctional families, impolite people, materialism, hedonism et cetera," he explained. "All of the things that represent the excess of America. They have made it Italian-American, unfairly."

ONE wonders what Tony Soprano himself might think about this debate. In fact, we have an inkling. No question, he takes his Italian heritage seriously. But he is prepared to go only so far down the group-pride road.

In an episode about Columbus Day a couple of years ago, Tony reminds his consigliere, Silvio Dante, of all that he has achieved. Leaving out the expletives — no easy task with a "Sopranos" script — he tells Silvio:

"Did you get all this because you're Italian? No. You got it because you're you, because you're smart, because whatever. Where is our self-esteem? I mean, that doesn't come from Columbus or 'The Godfather' or Chef Boyardee."

That's the thing about "The Sopranos." Like it or not, it is often insightful.

Robert Viscusi, a professor of English at Brooklyn College, makes that point in a new book, "Buried Caesars" (State University of New York Press). It is fair to say, Professor Viscusi writes, that "discrimination inevitably accompanies and draws nourishment" from "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos." But make no mistake about those works, he says. They are, "for good or ill, works of art."

Mr. Alfano, for one, doesn't buy it. Asked if "The Sopranos" was not indeed well made, he replied with a trace of scorn: "Well made. 'Birth of a Nation' was also well made."
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