The Enduring Allure of the Mafia
With the new edition hot off the presses, Mafia Movies editor Dana Renga talks visual texts, representations of the mafia in the US compared to Italy, and how these evolve as the organizations grow stronger.
By guest blogger Dana Renga
Every Spring semester at Ohio State I teach a general education course called Mafia Movies that regularly enrolls between 200-250 students from a variety of majors across the university (the majority from Business and Engineering). We watch many films and television series, from mob classics such as The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, The Sopranos, and Gomorra. The Series, to lesser-known films like the anti-mafia biopic Placido Rizzotto and the melodrama Angela. The toughest film to teach in the course is Luchino Visconti’s 1963 masterpiece The Leopard – it is very long, students find it slow and dense, and, most importantly, “mafia” is only mentioned once in the film, and, at first glance, mobsters are absent. Why then include such a film in a course on the mafia? (I’ve received this question from students countless times!) In a nutshell, Italy’s equivalent of Gone with the Wind conveys a crucial message about Cosa Nostra (the mafia of Sicily): it is a relatively new phenomenon, born at the same time as the Italian state roughly 150 years ago (i.e. the mafia, and Italy, are only about as old as The Ohio State University, which was founded in 1870!).
The mafia’s inception, evolution, and expansion into the United States are long, complicated, enthralling stories that are treated in several of the chapters of Mafia Movies: A Reader, Second Edition. What originally fascinated me about the mafia, and compelled me to put together the first edition of the reader about ten years ago, is how the mafia is represented differently in the US and in Italy, and how visual texts – films, documentaries, television series – contribute to how various mafias are understood by viewers. And today I am even more intrigued by how various mafias that originated in Italy and expanded to the US are depicted on big and small screens, and are received by viewers globally. Take, for example, two recent Italian television series with broad international appeal: Sky’s Gomorra. The Series (available on Netflix and The Sundance Channel), and Netflix’s Suburra. The Series. Now in its fourth season, show rights for Gomorra have been purchased in 190 countries – I just checked, and there are 206 sovereign states in the world, so these are pretty good odds. And Suburra is Italy’s first made-for-Netflix series that engages viewers in markets across the globe (Netflix content is available in over 190 countries).
Gomorra and Suburra focus on factual Italian mafias that appear regularly in the international media spotlight: the former narrativizes the exploits of the Camorra, the mafia of the Campania region, while the later is centered on Mafia Capitale, the organized crime network based in Rome, the nation’s capital. With few exceptions (think Henry Hill in Goodfellas), the vast majority of Hollywood representations of organized crime are purely fictional (there is no real-life Tony Soprano or Don Vito Corleone). This is not the case in Italy, where, especially in more recent productions, narrative is inspired by real life events, actual organized crime syndicates, and historical figures. This is incredibly fascinating as, more recently in Italy, onscreen mobsters are depicted in incredibly sentimental and sympathetic terms, similar to many antiheroes gracing American television screens as of late (in addition to Tony Soprano, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Nucky Thompson, or Hannibal Lector come to mind). Also, and differently from these and other American perpetrators, in Italy, bad guys are also played by conventionally beautiful actors. So, in Italy we have good-looking perpetrators committing factually based criminal acts. Such a recipe causes many debates in Italy regarding the so-called glamorization of organized crime, and these polemics are heightened around series with a focus on good-looking, sympathetic perpetrators.
As discussed in Mafia Movies, the Italian mafia is a global phenomenon that has penetrated legal and illegal business and grows stronger by the day. At the same time, filmic and televisual representations of the mafia with a focus on redeemed and redeemable villains are increasingly common, and attract viewers throughout the world. What does this all mean? For one, Italy’s mafias are culturally specific and global. Also, mafia films and television series attract viewers in and outside of Italy in their focus on organized crime, a topic with selling power. Most Italian films and television series focusing on the mafia made before the early 2000s focused on those fallen in the battle against the mafia, or depicted mafiosi in highly ambiguous terms. Now, however, Italian gangsters approximate glamorized Hollywood depictions of criminality, such as in both Scarface versions, The Godfather saga, and Goodfellas. To return to The Leopard, in the words of Tancredi Falconeri (played by the stunning Alain Delon), “If we want things to stay as they are, everything must change.” In sum, the mafias, and depictions thereof, continuously evolve as the various organizations grow stronger. An enduring phenomenon indeed, made clear in this set of mafia-related arrests on July 17, 2019.
Dana Renga is an associate professor of Italian at The Ohio State University. She is the author of Unfinished Business: Screening the Italian Mafia in the New Millennium (2013), Watching Sympathetic Perpetrators on Italian Television: Gomorrah and Beyond (2019), and Mafia Movies: A Reader (2019). She has published extensively on Italian cinema and television.