1972's The Godfather (left) and 2010's The Sicilian Girl
It’s not hard to understand Hollywood’s love affair with Mafia mythology. The underworld offers all the trappings of a blockbuster movie: dangerous men with an insatiable appetite for power cavorting with glamorous girls, on the wrong side of the law. The die was cast in 1932, in the original version of Scarface, a hit film from legendary director Howard Hawks that was loosely based on the life of Al Capone. Censors demanded that producer Howard Hughes add the subtitle “The Shame of the Nation” so filmgoers wouldn’t interpret the movie as a glorification of the gangster lifestyle. (Nice try.) At the time of its release, it was the most violent film to come out of Hollywood, and yet the uneducated protagonist, who brutally eliminates his competition and makes millions bootlegging, comes off more like a folk hero than a coldblooded criminal.
In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, the undisputed capo dei capi of all Mafia films, elevated the format from guilty pleasure to Shakespearean epic. Marlon Brando infused Don Corleone with a sense of nobility and decency. He’s tough but fair, Robin Hood in an Armani suit. He’s benevolent, or at least benign, to those in his favor, and to those who deserve retribution? A severed horse’s head comes to mind. The Godfather trilogy emerged when the Mafia was on the decline in the United States, due largely to tough legislation and herculean efforts by law enforcement.
In Italy, particularly in Naples, Calabria, and Palermo, organized crime was at its bloody zenith in the 1970s and 1980s. Drug trafficking made local mafiosi rich, and a power struggle known as the Cosa Nostra wars left thousands of corpses in its wake. The violence wasn’t just among rival factions. Law enforcement and ordinary civilians were also targets. Gang members infiltrated local government and had a hand in every segment of commerce in Sicily and Southern Italy, from real estate to medicine and agriculture. Italians were loath to speak of the mafia and terrified to testify against the horror that was unfolding in front of them. But the romance they had had with “men of honor” who once protected local peasants from corrupt national police was cooling in Sicily, just as the love affair with the celluloid mafia myth began to heat up in the United States.
By 1992, the murder of anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino began to turn public opinion against Italian organized crime. The testimony of witnesses such as Rita Atria led to hundreds of convictions and crippled the mob’s domination over Italian commerce. The 2008 film Gomorrah (based on the book by Roberto Saviano) received international acclaim for its graphic depiction of the brutality and disturbingly international predominance of the Naples crime syndicate, the Camorra.
Since the success of Gomorrah, a handful of neorealist, anti-mafia films have emerged from Italian filmmakers. In movies like Fortapàsc and Io Ricordo, the heroes are not the mobsters, but rather those who struggle against the insidious reach of organized crime. Contrary to the archetypes of Scarface and The Godfather, the new folk heroes are on the right side of the law. It’s not so easy to be charmed by a dangerous man in a good suit when you’ve witnessed his violence firsthand.