‘The Family Whistle’ (‘Il fischio di famiglia’): Cannes Review

THE FAMILY WHISTLE -still 2- h 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A joyful addition to film history.

An Italian documentary traces the origins of the Coppola clan.

The extraordinary creativity of the Coppola clan, which numbers acclaimed filmmakers and actors (Francis Ford Coppola, Talia Shire, Roman Coppola, Nicolas Cage, Sofia Coppola) and generations of musicians, is chronicled in the fresh and lively doc The Family Whistle (Il fischio di famiglia) from its origins in the abject poverty of southern Italy to the glory of the Academy Awards and Radio City Music Hall. Ably made with gusto and richly edited with some wonderful archive footage, the fast-moving 65-minute documentary is a joyful addition to film history that should quickly segue from festivals to TV. It made a pre-Cannes Classics bow at the Boston Intl. Film Festival, where DP Ugo Lo Pinto won a cinematography award.

When filmmaker Michele Salfi Russo discovered he is a distant relative of the Coppolas (not so surprising, in view of the fact that he hails from Bernalda in Basilicata, the small town that spawned Agostino Coppola in 1882), he proposed to Francis that he make a film about his origins, but the director gave the inexperienced Russo the green light instead. The result is a carefully researched and amusingly presented family tree, produced by American Zoetrope and Russo’s Ulisse Cultural Association.

The sensation is being thrust into a noisy, confused family gathering. There’s not a great deal of reflection here, and in his enthusiastic rush to tell the story, the documaker sometimes forgets to note who he’s interviewing, as though these characters were as familiar to the audience as they are to their nephews and nieces. It takes some googling to figure out who's who. Reminiscing on camera are Francis, his sister Talia and his uncles Mikey and the composer and conductor Anton Coppola. After learning the poignant history of Bernalda, it’s good to see Francis returning to the place with obvious affection, and the film points out the way the family has never cut the cord with its Italian roots.

A sun-baked village romantically perched on a cliff, Bernalda even inspired a sequence from The Godfather, but was once the land of mosquitos, malaria and terrible poverty. The Coppola story begins with Agostino, a local Don Giovanni known as the “balcony leaper” for his amorous adventures. After some entertaining family stories about his mother Filomena, who loses her nose and the “family whistle,” which is a way clans call their own home for dinner, the action switches to New York, where Agostino immigrated at the turn of the century. He loved classical music, and his seven sons nearly all exhibited musical talent. While working as an engineer in a factory, he attended silent movies with orchestral accompaniment and went on to build the first Vitaphone, an invention that synchronized a recorded soundtrack with film images, opening the door to talking movies. It’s an astounding accomplishment, somewhat lost in passing at this boisterous filmic family reunion. Consider the achievements of Francis and Talia’s father Carmine, who played solo flute for Toscanini and scored The Godfather II. Nor does Russo intend to leave out the new generations of talent like Jason and Robert Schwartzman, Gia Coppola, etc.

Editors Lo Pinto and Russo use bits and pieces of local archive material, old documentaries and films to reconstruct it all. The music track is particularly rich in traditional peasant songs and ballads from the Lucania region. Giuseppe Zambon’s splendid modern score takes its cue from these southern musical traditions.

Production company: American Zoetrope, Ulisse Cultural Association

Cast: Francis Ford Coppola, Talia Shire

Director, screenwriter: Michele Salfi Russo

Producers: Fabio Aprea, Francesca Pedrazza Gorlero

Director of photography: Ugo Lo Pinto

Production design: Gaetano Russo

Editors: Ugo Lo Pinto, Michele Russo

Music: Giuseppe Zambon

65 minutes

In Italian, English