Godfather, we have a problem. 100 years of mafia movies, explained

This article has been prompted in particular by a conversation I had with my friend Scott (big shout out, dude! Thank you for the inspiration).

The 23rd of May is a grim anniversary for Italy: on this day in 1992, the magistrate Giovanni Falcone was brutally murdered in a dynamite bombing, along with his wife and all the agents of his escort. Falcone, together with his colleague and friend Paolo Borsellino, was investigating on the Sicilian Mafia and its connections with the State. They organized the maxi-trial that for the first time in Italy brought to court over 450 suspects for Mafia related crimes, between 1986 and 1992.

Later that same year, Paolo Borsellino was also killed in a car bombing (July 19th) after visiting his mother for lunch. Those were the most virulent months in the 1990s Mafia Wars. Real ones, not videogames.

The thing is, Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”, in Sicilian. The term generally refers to Sicilian mafia organizations) is a nasty beast. Since the unification of Italy, it is reported to have killed at least 5000 people. Officially. Nowadays, it seems, it’s a little dormant. And it’s probably true, in terms of open hostility and general violence. But add to that the work that other criminal organizations do in other regions (the most active are the N’drangheta from Calabria and the Camorra families from Napoli and Campania) and you have a very dark and grim panorama. Organized crime in Italy is anything but gone. It’s simply too busy making money. According to recent studies, Italian mafias produce yearly revenues for 135 bln euros, equal to 7% of the total Italian GDP.

I noticed that international audiences have a really twisted perception of this phenomenon. At best, people just ask me “Does mafia really exist?”. At worst, they think it’s something cool, a quirky conversation starter, or a funny idea for an Italian-themed restaurant or barbershop. Weeeeell… it’s not.

Mafia – the official merchandising

It’s a fascinating topic – great for stand-up, for sure – but Mafias are not cool. They soak in blood entire regions, businesses and countless families – often innocent ones. Even a member of my family was involved in a shooting – by mistake! – and miraculously survived three bullets in his chest. To grow up in a territory controlled by organized crime means that you learn to deal with violence, fear and criminal privileges in ways that other people cannot even start to understand. So I made it a priority in my work as a chronicler to rectify a few facts about this dark underworld, and to investigate its connections with popular culture. Because pop culture has a big role in this story.

NOTE – I am well aware of the fact that the Italian mafias are certainly not the only ones around. Organized crime has many faces and forms and is spread worldwide. Here I can – and will – only talk about the ones grown out of Italy. I am in no way saying that they are an exclusive phenomenon, or “special” somehow. There are similarities, and also notable differences, with the organizations in other areas of the world. Certainly it’s the most represented in film. Why? This is one of the answers I want to find.

Popular Culture romanticized gangsters since the beginning.

This is an old problem. Gangster movies have been popular in Hollywood since the 1930s: in times of economic depression and general pessimism, the “gangster” archetype emerged as a sort of romantic popular hero, like in Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), or the first Scarface (1932). These movies hit a cultural nerve and reached immense popularity, thanks to a combination of celebrity power, the shock of displaying violence on screen, and the resonance with the popular feelings of distrust for the established order of the time.

The Public Enemy, poster, 1931.

This went so far that civil and religious organizations proposed a boycott of gangster movies, until Hollywood reacted by enforcing a “Production Code” in 1934 that guaranteed “above all that crime will be shown to be wrong and that the criminal life will be loathed” (source: “The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide“). The best answer to the situation seemed to be the creation of an effective counter-narrative: the FBI’s G-Men (“superhero” figures working for the Government), and later the wave of Superheroes of the Golden Age of Comics, which sublimated an answer to the same need for protection and justice.

During WW2 part of the war effort was to create clear, solid narratives of good and evil. This lasted well over the 1950s, times of Cold War paranoia and witch hunts.

The post WW2 scenario.

World War 2 swept all this away, and in the post-war world the public opinion had no shortages of heroes and villains to narrate. Italy had to deal with the disastrous experience of fascism and the lost war. Its cultural industry put the pieces of a shattered national identity together through the lenses of neo-realism.

Franco Nero and Claudia Cardinale star in “Mafia” (English title), 1968. Adapted from the courageous novel of the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia.

Its leading figures explored the shadows of history and society through a variety of means: mainly courageous and direct social commentary (In Nome della Legge, 1949; Salvatore Giuliano, 1962; Mafioso, 1962; Il giorno della civetta, 1968); but also through a more international lens (The Battle of Algiers, 1966), a rich vein of comedy and satire (Everybody go Home, 1960), or the “fantasy” setting of the spaghetti western genre (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) – all of Sergio Leone’s cinema was strongly political, the “far west” setting a mean to reach the end of social and cultural commentary.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” was the first of the “Once Upon a Time” movies, a series that now includes a number of other places, including America, Mexico, China, London, Anatolia, Hollywood.

American cinema, on the other hand, was more concentrated on evasion and epic war stories, important to consolidate the feeling of “victory” and achievement around comforting narratives. This, of course, couldn’t last forever.

The gamechanger: Don Vito Corleone. 

Enter the big cultural and economic crisis of the 1970s, which opened the door to a big shift in narratives. Remember, these were the peak years of the Nixon administrations and Vietnam war. Times when the trust towards public institutions and power were at a historical low.

Some signs were of course already there – check for example Bonnie and Clyde (1969) and The French Connection (1971) and thanks a lot Guglielmo from Coolturama for the tip! – but when the time was right, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather, part II” (1974) shook the foundations of the relationship between good guys and villains. Inspired by the source material written by Mario Puzo (born in 1920 in Hell’s Kitchen, the “Italian Harlem”), the movies were masterpieces of cinematic art and became instant classics, thanks to its outstanding performances and all-around cinematic mastery. But they came with a big shadow.

The Dons they described were gentlemen – in particular, the Corleone family – bound to a code of honor, devoted to family and with a clear sense of justice. Sure, they lived in a violent world, but all their violence was justified: corrupt police officers, greedy studio producers, other gangsters without morality. They bribe politicians and magistrates because “that’s how things work”, a little grease is necessary for all the cogs to work in the big machine of society. One of their mottos is: “This is not personal, it’s only business”. They consider themselves business people, who give people what they want. Good? Evil? “Senator, we are part of the same hypocrisy”, says Michael to Senator Geary in “part II”. And, in more than one way, it sounds right.

The Godfather movies set a new standard in cinema and storytelling, took the archetype of the honorable Prince of Thieves (think Robin Hood) from the deepest of our collective mind, and elevated it to a higher level by connecting it with a narrative that resonated with the political and social situation of the times. They essentially founded the genre of “mafia movies” and inspired a myriad of other stories. And rightfully so: these really are among the best movies ever made.

“Hey Michael, stereotype much?”

So what’s wrong with “The Godfather”? 

The problem is – “The Godfather” is too damn good storytelling. As such, it demands a whole lot of work from its audience. By presenting a nuanced world where moral categories are blurred, it exposes the corruption of power, without focusing too much on one side or another. It creates a rich, credible world; brings to life charismatic and memorable characters; has a powerful and coherent theme. But it’s fiction. It depicts an idealized world that never really existed, just like the “Far West”. 

Mafia bosses were not romantic gentlemen, and certainly didn’t have the charisma of Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro. For example, read any realistic account of Al Capone’s figure and what you have is the portrait of a twisted man riddled with addictions and personality issues. The same or worse can be said for the real-life bosses of the Sicilian and Neapolitan organized crime. This is what they looked like, before the Hollywood treatment:

Al Capone. He died in prison, age 48, of syphilis-related cardiac complications.
Salvatore Riina, “the beast”. He died in prison, and was refused a public funeral by the church. Not so charming now, eh?

Movies also create or reinforce some hairy stereotypes: in them, Italians are either patriarchal suit-wearing, machine-gun swinging mafiosos, or meek small business owners completely subjugated to their criminal power. I would be richer than the Tattaglia family if I got one penny every time somebody cracked at me a variation of the old classic: “hey come on, you are Italian, we need to be careful with you, you are Mafia and all that – hahaha… right? Right?” (picture my facial expression turning into a “no dude, not really” grimace).

The Godfather saga tells a story that completes its arc over three different movies: “part I” tells the story Michael Corleone’s glorious rise to power after taking the reins of a criminal empire from his father, Vito. But we need the “part II” to see how he ends up, in reality, completely isolating himself and destroying his family; and “part III” (1990) (a messy, but interesting story with some hints at Vatican and Italian politics that hit really close to home) to finally explore the depths of his abyss: his lonely, final, desperate, voiceless scream representing his definitive failure, the end of his moral journey.

It’s a story that requires critical thinking and some necessary homework on behalf of the audience. And missing these, its message cannot be complete. It results in a celebration of the dark sides of power, a glorification of the Villain, and not much more.

Different gangster, different accent, still Pacino.

The 1980s and the “next generation”. 

It’s possible that this problem was somehow understood by Coppola himself, and by the next generation of storytellers. Coppola’s next project, “Apocalypse Now” (1979) told a similarly complex story where moral roles shift all the time, but in the end there is no doubt about what it is: a journey to hell. And possibly one without a way back.

Some classic gangster movies from that decade adopted a similar approach, clearly defining their protagonists as damned individuals for which there can be no redemption.

“Say hello to my little friend!”

Brian De Palma’sScarface” (1983) is a muscular, cocaine-fueled, high-testosterone journey into Miami’s organized crime scene of the 80s. Its protagonist Tony Montana (again played by Al Pacino in top shape) shines with heroic qualities. He is forced into a criminal life by the Cuban revolution (important detail to make him relatable to the American audience), and wants to live the American dream.

He reaches the peak of his success and his actions describe him as honorable (among gangsters) – without one single mention of the devastation that his drug empire must have brought onto society, the same problem I have with Breaking Bad – but his omnipotence also becomes his weak spot, and his fall from grace is presented with stark clarity: alone and haunted, after killing or alienating all his friends and loved ones, he is brutally executed in the legendary staircase scene.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Sergio Leone’s spiritual testament, describes the rise and fall of a group of Jewish gangsters, starting as street kids in the prohibition years. Once again Leone set a story in a fantasy world (the “once upon a time”, straight from fairy tales, is the cue) to tell a tale of social relevance to his contemporaries. Gangsters are presented as heroes and their adventures are epic, but the end of their journey is lonely and full of regrets, without appeal.

“I am a businessman!” – again, that normalizing narrative. Handle with care, it can be more dangerous than dynamite.

With The Untouchables (1987), De Palma reprises the gangster genre turning Al Capone (Robert De Niro) into a mesmerizing, Lucifer-like villain, but deploys against him a team of movie superstars: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Andy Garcia form the pre-avengers “Untouchable Squad”. The narrative is obvious: evil can be charming, but in the end, crime doesn’t pay.

On the Italian front, check out Il Camorrista (1986) (international title: The Professor), written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (famous for Cinema Paradiso and The Legend of 1900). The movie follows a similar structure and theme as “Scarface“. It’s raw and harsh, describing how Raffaele Cutolo controlled a vast criminal empire in Napoli, directly from jail, including relationships with top government officials and other criminal organizations. It all really happened in the 1970s-80s.

These were the Eighties. Times and audiences were more mature, ready to engage in stories where high stakes were met with an even higher price to pay.

The turn of the century brought a deeper awareness.

Martin Scorsese’s ground-breaking Goodfellas (1990) opened a new decade of criminal storytelling and told its tale without compromises, describing its gangsters as thugs without any embellishment or moral justifications.  Faithful to Nicholas Pileggi’s book, the titular “wiseguys” don’t care to find jobs or blend in society: instead, they prefer a life based on violence and crime. Some space is also given (finally) to describing the conditions of their families and of the women who share their lifestyles.

“What do you mean, funny? Funny how? How is mafia funny?”

Described from an external point of view (Henry Hill is Irish, his wife a Jew), the Italian communities are again presented in stereotypical and unflattering ways: their love for food, their big, loud families, their bad fashion taste. De Niro’s “A Bronx Tale” (1993) will try to weave a richer tapestry in that sense. Scorsese’s mafiosos carry on miserable lives that end violently or, like in the protagonist’s privileged case, in anonymity thanks to the government’s protection. The ultimate humiliation for somebody who wanted to rise above everybody else. This is a perfect cautionary tale for the archetypal figure of “The fallen angel“.

Scorses revisited the genre in 1995 with Casino (from another book by Pileggi) with a very similar story arc and structure, Robert De Niro starring as “Ace” Rothstein and Sharon Stone as Ginger. “More of the same”, but when “the same” is so good, I am not complaining.

In this sense, The Irishman (2019) feels more like a late-twentieth-century story. Its heroes are tainted, carry the WW2 traumas, and create an equally ferocious post-war world, where violence and brutality are currency. In all this, there is no enjoyment, no pursuit of happiness. This is what they can do, and this is what they do. Scorsese spins his epic, merciless tale until the inevitable conclusion: De Niro’s Frank Sheeran (another Irishman dropped into the “extraordinary world” of the Italian mob) will end up old, alienated, alone and will find no redemption at the end of his journey.

Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997) – from the true story of Joe Pistone’s life as an undercover cop – completed the deconstruction of the gangster type as a product of his environment, a less than privileged reluctant villain who ends up trapped in his own network of violence, and moves towards an inevitable, grim fate. The audience travels with Johnny Depp’s Donnie to hell and back, but in the process, they cannot help but feel some empathy for Lefty (Al Pacino, again). Humanizing the villain is the first necessary step to creating narratives of understanding and compassion.

The story to end all mafia stories: The Sopranos. 

Spanning over almost a decade (1999-2007), the series that changed tv forever completed the process of humanizing the people behind the idea of “mafia”. James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is “funny and horrifying and disgusting and sweet”, suffers from anxiety attacks, is in therapy, is addicted to alcohol, pills and violence: above everything else, he is human, very, very human. This befitted the postmodern, third-millennium narrative and definitely blurred any remaining distinction between good and evil. 

Similar case with Breaking Bad (2008-2013). It’s memorable storytelling – some of the best tv ever made, for sure – and I for one definitely loved watching the epic tale of Walter White, his transformation from a timid high school professor to fully graded drug lord.

But the story never finds the time to show us how devastating crystal meth is, the irreparable damage it does on families and entire communities. There are just a few sporadic encounters with addicts, shown as miserable individuals, almost isolated cases. And Walter finds redemption through his epic sacrifice in the final showdown. So, it’s all good? After five seasons of the show, it’s almost as if building an international drug empire is something fun and without consequences. Very tricky.

All this responds to a modern concept of storytelling, where the audience is constantly challenged in their perception and moral compass. And here, in a certain way, we go full circle with “The Godfather”: are we aware of this?

There is an interesting parallel with the darker decades of the twentieth century. We are again living times of moral uncertainty and of generalized mistrust towards power, governments, media. Gangsters and anti-heroes embody these feelings perfectly and easily attract popular sympathy.

It could be one of the reasons why the “New Italian Epic“, the most recent wave in Italian storytelling, seems to have a particular fascination for criminals. Especially worth mentioning are, in my opinion, Romanzo Criminale (the movie is from 2005 but check out also the series), Gomorrah – again, movie (2008) and series (2014) – and the excellent Angels of Evil (2010), about the real-life infamous (yet, charming) bank robber Renato Vallanzasca.

So, the initial question still stands: is there a danger in telling crime stories? 

I don’t think we can find a simple answer to this. As I mentioned before, critical thinking and media literacy are essential competencies to navigate stories, and in particular the fascinating ley lines of the contemporary media landscape. If these abilities are missing, yes, I think the representation of “evil” can be tricky. There is no denying that dark stories and fallen angels are fascinating. After all, Lucifer means “carrier of light”.

But – as always – a big responsibility rests in the storyteller and in the way stories are told. Before “Joker(2019) was released, concerns were raised that such a movie would trigger a wave of violence. Nothing happened. People went to take selfies by that staircase in the Bronx, and that was all.

I think the reason for that is that “Joker” (whatever your opinion on the movie – I loved it) uses a very delicate touch in describing the transformation of Arthur Fleck into the Clown Prince of Gotham. It’s never romanticized. On the contrary, it’s raw, his journey depicted unapologetically as a one-way elevator to hell. As a consequence, the audience empathizes with him, sides with him, but dosen’t want to emulate him.

And that’s the difference with Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano.

In conclusion, I am certainly not advocating banning violence or crime movies. The human soul has a dark side and by exploring it, we can generate incredibly compelling, fascinating stories. But we need to spread critical thinking, media literacy and story analysis tools – in particular, to the very active role everybody has in the way we process and interpret stories, therefore creating every day the reality in which we live.

On the other hand, story creators have great power, and with it comes great responsibility. How we describe evil, violence and the dark side of human nature makes a huge difference. Through stories, we can get to a better understanding of how “evil” is created, and how it operates. This can be used for a greater good. Between condoning violence and creating toxic stereotypes – or raising understanding towards injustice and compassion for the disenfranchised in the world: the choice is all ours.


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