The Family Whistle, the Coppola saga

Film still of The Family Whistle © RR

End of the Eighties. The Italian actor Michele Russo started tracing the Coppola family tree, beginning in the village of Bernalda in the south of Italy. He discovered scintillating characters “like in a fairy tale”, and began producing The Family Whistle, a documentary about this legendary family, to be screened during Cannes Classics.

How did it all start, when and why did you decide to write a documentary about the Coppola Family, your family?

The idea of telling the story of the Coppola family matured over time. I was a child when I heard my father saying that we were related to Francis Ford Coppola, and for years I tried to get in touch with these American cousins who had originated from Bernalda, a small town in Southern Italy. Finally in 1988, I met someone who had known Francis Coppola in New York and gave me his address.

I wrote to Francis asking if I could meet him, and after a few months he answered, saying that he was coming to Rome, and could meet me at Cinecittà Studios. We met and became friends. This encounter sparked my desire to find out more about the roots of the Coppola family, and to understand the source of their creativity and success.

I began a long period of research, drawing from town archives and popular sources. As a result of this process, I made a family tree, beginning with the first Coppola that arrived in Bernalda in the late 1700s. Along the way, I discovered legendary characters and events that were revealed to me unexpectedly, as in a fairy tale. I gave the family tree to the Coppola family, so that they could know their origins and the source of the stories handed down by Agostino Coppola, the family patriarch, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1904.

In 2005, I was with Francis and his granddaughter Gia in a small house in the historic centre of Bernalda, which I had found them for their short visit to our town. Drinking wine by the fireplace, we began telling stories about the family. I told Francis that the history of the Coppola family was really interesting, and in some ways was like a fairy tale, and I thought that he could make a film… then Francis told me that if I so wished, I could make a documentary.

So, I began to write a story for the documentary that attempted to reconstruct the history of this fascinating family. The path was difficult — I had to search for archival footage, locate old documents, and especially travel to different parts of Europe and the U.S. to interview the family members. The film slowly took shape, as I worked on it during the brief periods when I was able to find the time away from my career.

After some years of working on it, I showed my film to Francis and the family, and they congratulated me which made me very happy, as I made this film solely out of a love for history, family and my home town of Bernalda.

You explain that the Coppola saga all started in the small village of Bernalda in Southern Italy. Can you describe the conditions at that time, at the end of the 19th century?

In 1882, Bernalda was a small, poverty-stricken town, and the period was characterized by profound social and cultural poverty throughout southern Italy. It was a population of farmers and farm workers, 90% of which were illiterate. Agostino's talent for mechanics and music enabled him to survive beyond the reality of Basilicata, one of the most devastated regions of Italy, which would mark his fate forever.

Even after the unification of Italy in 1861, which was intended to liberate Southern Italy, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, from the yoke and oppression of the Bourbons, the situation did not change, and thus began one of the greatest waves of emigration in history. Millions of people left the south of Italy for the New World. I have to say that the situation has not really improved; unfortunately, emigration continues to tear our families apart.

Who were Filomena and Agostino?

Filomena Coppola was a young seamstress, called "No Nose," because she contracted an infection in her nose and they had to cut it off. She married her first cousin, Carmine Coppola, with whom she had four sons, the third of which was Agostino, Francis Ford's grandfather. Carmine died young, leaving Filomena a widow with four children to care of. Filomena was a very strong woman and did all she could to take care of her children, trying to secure a future for them, but the reality of the poverty of Bernalda forced her to be deprived of them, as she convinced them to emigrate to the United States. She would never see them again …. Filomena died in Bernalda in 1910.

Agostino Coppola was the patriarch, the founder of the now famous Coppola family of musicians and filmmakers. He was born in Bernalda.  As the third of four children, he was able to obtain the diploma for fifth grade, a rare achievement in a land where illiteracy was the norm. At an early age, Agostino was taught to play the guitar and mandolin by Donato Carella, a blind musician, organist of the local parish, and thus developed a passion for music. This passion was to determine the fate of his descendants. At the age of 11, Agostino became an apprentice of the legendary Ciccio Panio, a mechanical genius who gained fame by bringing electrical light to the region and for unlocking the swing bridge of the port of Taranto with one blow of a hammer, enabling ships to pass through.

In 1904, Agostino emigrated to America. There, he married Maria Zasa, who gave birth to his seven sons, to whom Agostino always firmly said, "Follow your path but never lose the music inside you!" In the 1920s, he worked as a mechanic-inventor in his workshop in New York where he made the first machine to separate, classify and count coins. In 1924, he built the first image and sound synchronization machine, the Vitaphone, contributing to the emergence of talking pictures, touching and influencing the lives of many people, most notably those of his own offspring.

The artistic talents and careers of four subsequent generations of Coppolas came from the life and influence of Agostino Coppola: his sons, Carmine and Anton, were musical prodigies who became noted performers, composers and conductors. His grandchildren, August, Francis and Talia, are, respectively, a writer, film director and actor. Among his great-grandchildren, Nicolas Cage, Roman, Sofia, Jason Schwartzman, and great-great-granddaughter, Gia Coppola, have made their mark in cinema in a most notable way.

And Zumbabalcone?

"Zumbabalcone" was the nickname by which the people of Bernalda called Agostino Coppola. The nickname was given to him because, at night, he used to jump from balcony to balcony to visit his mistresses.