On set with The Godfather

As the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original 1972 film, The Godfather, we take you into the Sicilian filming locations of this epic American crime trilogy. 

It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years since director Francis Ford Coppola took us on a journey into the deep world of the American and Sicilian mafia through flashbacks in time. Before we delve into the filming locations that helped deliver this cult classic, let’s get some trivia out of the way. 

Based in the 1940s era, The Godfather trilogy follows the life and love of a fictional Italian-American mafia family, the Corleones, who were based in New York. They were named after the Sicilian town of Corleone, an hour’s drive south of Palermo, as some of the most illustrious real-life Mafia bosses of that era came from there. Interestingly, Coppola stated in a 1975 Playboy interview that The Godfather Part 1 was not a story about the mafia, but more “a romance about a king with three sons. It is a film about power.”  

The Godfather films were released in 1972, 1974 and 1990 respectively, but were inspired by the 1969 novel of the same name by the Italian-American author Mario Puzo. Captured in an Independent interview, Puzo confessed that he had “never met a real honest-to-god gangster”, but that the all-powerful protagonist Don Vito Corleone was in fact inspired by his Naples-born mother.  

With a luminous cast in tow - Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton - the iconic film versions have forever impacted popular culture, inspiring the gangster genre with the likes of The Sopranos and The Goodfellas, not to mention Guy Ritchie films. While most of the filming was shot in America, it was Sicily where Coppola looked to for all the Italian scenes, bringing his entire crew in tow. Originally, the plan was to shoot in Palermo, but this was the early 1970s, and the organised crime that ‘owned the city’ expected protection money in order for filming to proceed.  

Unperturbed, the crew simply moved to Taormina. As it happens, they stayed at a Citalia recommended hotel, the 19th century Villa Sant'Andrea, A Belmond Hotel, in its beautiful beachside location!  

We should add that Palermo is no longer in the grip of the mafia and is perfectly safe to visit. You can even go on an anti-mafia tour, seeing a side of Palermo you wouldn’t normally see as you learn about the civic movement against the Mafioso power!  

While in Taormina, Coppola befriended the Sicilian Baron and acclaimed artist, Gianni Pennisi, who pointed him in the right direction for locations, as did some locals. Much of these locations were chosen as they remained sleepy and undeveloped enough to represent the 1940s. The rest, of course, is history. 

Forza d’Agrò

Your first glance of Sicily is the scene where Michael Corleone and his two bodyguards look up and see a church atop a hill, which is Sant’Alessio in the province of Messina, with its suitably picturesque church spire for the perfect shot. However, it was its neighbour, the sleepy medieval village of Forza d’Agrò, located a 20-minute drive from Taormina, that featured in all three parts of The Godfather trilogy and represented the family’s native ‘Corleone village’.  

You can see shots of Forza d’Agrò outside several churches. The Baroque style Cathedral of Santa Maria SS Annunziata appears in The Godfather Part II when the young Vito Corleone is making his escape to the States, and later when a wedding is taking place when Michael returns with his first wife. The church of Sant’Agostino is featured when Michael returns with his second wife and they join a wedding party.  

Aside from these landmarks, there are plenty of pretty elements to observe in the village, including ruins of a Norman castle, and an impressive Catalan Gothic Durazzesco Arch that leads to the Church of the Holy Trinity. There’s even a chocolate museum to whet your taste buds! 

Savoca

In The Godfather Part I is the small, pedestrian-only town of Savoca, which is just a short but truly breath-taking drive away from Forza d’Agrò and is the main pilgrimage spot for Godfather fans.  

Featured in the film was Bar Vitelli with its beautiful vine-covered terrace situated in the main square in an 18th century palazzo. It remains a fully functioning bar that hasn’t changed much since the 1970s.  

The Norman Chiesa di San Nicolò was the chosen film location for Michael and Apollonia’s church wedding for the memorable scene where the congregation spill out and wander down its picturesque cliffside street overlooking the Ionian Sea. While visiting, don’t be surprised if you see film buffs dressed in their bridal attire as they recreate the scene. Today, among the church’s 15th century roots is a display with image stills from the film.  

When you’re not browsing all the film memorabilia and souvenir stands, you can explore the many Baroque, Renaissance and medieval structures of the town, from the crypt at the Church of Santa Maria in Cielo Assunta, to the panoramic views by the ruins of Castello Pentefur.  

Castello Degli Schiavi 

Throughout the film series, you’ll see the 18th century Baroque Castello Degli Schiavi portrayed as the gorgeous villa that belongs to Don Tommasino. Without any major spoilers, some key events from the trilogy took place here, including an explosion and a death. Located near Catania and Mount Etna, today it’s a private residence that does occasionally open to the public.  

Palermo

By the time The Godfather Part III was filmed in 1990, Palermo was open for filming to Coppola and his crew. The stately 19th century Villa Malfitano Whitaker was featured as the venue celebrating Anthony Corleone’s opera singing debut. While the villa was meant to depict Bagheria, it is in fact right in the heart of Palermo, just a 30-minute walk from the historical centre. Now a museum that displays natural history and archaeology relics, not much has changed since the 1990s.  

The dramatic closing scene of the trilogy was filmed outside the spectacular Teatro Massimo, which is incidentally Italy’s largest opera house. (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what drama we mean). While the theatre’s interiors couldn’t be used in the film as it was undergoing a major renovation at the time, a replica was recreated in the film studio. Today you can enjoy a backstage tour of the theatre and visit the Royal Box where Al Pacino supposedly sat.  

Naturally, there were many other locations filmed across Italy, from various villas to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, but Sicily will forever remain the Italian home of The Godfather

 

Call us today to speak to one of our Italy Experts for further travel advice, hotel recommendations or to begin planning your next Italian holiday.
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