Tag Archives: Film Studies

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).

Ciro Di Marzio (Marco D’Amore) as a new breed of redeemed (and attractive) gangster in Gomorra. The Series

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.

Learn more in this free excerpt from the book! Mafia Movies: A Reader, Second Edition is now available.

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.

Author Footnotes with Angelica Fenner

Angelica Fenner is the author of Race Under Reconstruction in German Cinema.

Rather than comment further on the content of my book, what I’d like to share here are personal ruminations about the motivating forces behind its research and writing. As scholars and researchers, many of us become accustomed to encountering the perennial query, “So how did you get interested in this topic?” It is a question that sometimes irritates me as much as the question, “So how did you and your husband meet?” Both questions I sometimes (and perhaps inaccurately) perceive as insinuating that the match at hand is incongruous and demands justification. Such inquiries into the origins of another person’s motivation or desire have often struck me as alternately impudent or symptomatic of a stenotopic mind, one for which only that which has been rationalized can also be legitimated.

Admittedly – and this is probably true for many scholars – we don’t often pause to consciously contemplate why we’re interested in a topic – it would be like asking why any of us inhale and exhale on a regular basis to sustain the local body we inhabit. We become researchers out of an innate curiosity about the world and a desire to understand how things work, and perhaps also, to offer insights gleaned along the way on how they might work even better. But as we systematically, and often intuitively, forge onward with our inquiries, there is no denying that our endeavors are, at least unconsciously shaped by vectors of identity, by formative life experiences, an evolving understanding of society and our place within it, and also of course, pragmatic limitations placed on time and resources available to pursue our inquiries.

Setting myself on the analytical couch, I promise not to retrace as clinical an etiology as might have been proffered by a certain bearded and bespectacled psychoanalyst in fin-de-siécle Vienna, although his theories may bear some relevance nonetheless. According to Sigmund Freud, children frequently use their imagination to escape uncomfortable situations in life. When discontent with their immediate family of origin, for example, they may fantasize themselves to be secretly an orphan whose true mother or father corresponds with a certain ideal or norm. What Freud thsly coined a ‘family romance’ constitutes for most children a normal phase of development and individuation compensating for occasionally unsatisfying episodes of childhood. As a child, I was surely no exception in this regard, harboring a strong fascination for stories about orphans – Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Lucy Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, the Madeline books, and, of course, many Shirley Temple films. However, the figure of the orphan can be compelling for adults as much as for children, perhaps touching upon some deep-rooted universal anxiety about abandonment or about being outcast. Orphans can also represent the resilience of the human spirit, a capacity to survive the loss of primal relations, drawing on inner resources to forge new relations, find one’s way in the world, and thrive against multiple odds. As well, they represent the possibility for rebirth, having shed their origins and transformed into something entirely different.

The very first time I encountered the German film Toxi (Robert Stemmle 1952) was in a retrospective curated by Madeleine Bernstorff at the Arsenal Kino in Berlin in the late 1990s. It wasn’t exclusively the orphan motif that captured my attention, but it was certainly an element in the equation. I was also struck by the film’s self-conscious thematization of the phenomenon of racism in the early postwar era, when many (West) Germans outside the few metropolitan centers of an essentially agricultural nation would have had little, if any, practical encounters with Black Europeans. Historically speaking, German society was already heterogeneous, but traditionally, it had been Romani and Sinti, Eastern Europeans, and Jews that had served as the repository of difference. Toxi‘s exploration of difference may be problematic by contemporary standards, but as an historical artifact, the film possesses tremendous value for the way it refracts historical concerns surrounding race, gender normativization, class, and national identity. The story revolves around a bourgeois family (auf Deutsch, “eine gut bürgerlich Familie”) that takes into their home a 5-year old Afro-German child mysteriously deposited on their doorsteps. Toxi, the name with which the little girl introduces herself, becomes a didactic vehicle for exploring diverse responses – both empathetic and anxious – to her presence in the family. As such the family becomes metonymic for the nation, grappling with questions of group belonging that hold salience for social historians of early West German society but also offer insights into mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion still prevalent throughout the modern world.

The film self-consciously acknowledges Germany’s immediate historical past and what is referred to as ‘das Rassenproblem’ by the film character, Theodor Jenrich, who is explicitly situated as negative object choice, but also as a model of moral transformation. Simultaneously, the storyline introduces as politically progressive mouthpiece the young soon-to-be married couple, Hertha Rose and Robert Peters, who aspire to adopt Toxi and start a new family with her. They model a positive alternative to the segregationist politics reaching a boiling point in the United States during the same era. Indeed, West Germany arguably looked with some anxiety across the Atlantic to the violent outbursts that scarred especially the Deep South, and sought within its own ‘divided nation’ a more peaceful civil solution. No other feature film in the postwar era addressed with quite such forthrightness as did the popular and left-leaning (although hardly radical) former Ufa-director Robert Stemmle the issues at stake. The film was also unique in critically identifying early patterns of socialization that may shape children into racist citizens; for example, childhood tales such as Heinrich Hoffman’s nineteenth century compendium of children’s tales, “The Inky Boys.”

Equally fascinating for me was the way the film’s intergenerational cast of characters captured the habitus of that early postwar era, the same era in which my own parents had come of age before immigrating to the United States in the late 1950s. In every scene, I was struck by how a turn of phrase, a facial expression, a gesture of the hands, a shrug of the shoulders seemed to reflect the world of my parents — a world that also became my inheritance. I could both relate to the familiarity of these figures on the screen, while also discerning the historical gap of critical, if empathetic distance facilitating my own interpretation and research, which eventually coaxed forth from me an entire book manuscript. When I was young, my parents had hosted African-American children from New York City through what was then and today still called “The Fresh Air fund.” This organization brings children from disadvantaged inner city communities into the homes of families in the U.S. and Canada for a few weeks in the summer months when all children incline towards exploring the outdoors. I don’t doubt that my parents were impelled at some level by a desire to make good on Germany’s past, their legacy by default, even as they both came from families politically persecuted during the war. Doubtless they also sought to inculcate in us, their own children, a different sensibility for social integration. For as immigrants, they, too, struggled with questions of integration in a new language and a new culture. Being White in the United States certainly was and is not a unilateral leveler or uncontested site of privilege; speaking with an accent, or eating different foods, wearing different clothes, or having a different understanding of codes and cues of social interaction can all become markers of difference, and also, pretexts for exclusion.

Doubtless, whatever insights I have generated in this book are the result of my dual heritage and a certain ‘bifocal vision’ associated with that. Ironically, on a more personal note, my eye doctors since childhood have always enjoyed remarking upon the hidden disability of a profound astigmatism in my right eye, with which I currently cannot even read, although I’m holding the intention for a late life miracle: “You’d never guess these two eyes belonged to the same person,” more than one jolly optometrist has been known to chortle. And so it is that I have spent a lifetime grappling with a worldview that emerges from reconciling radically opposing data, both that sent from my left and right eyes, but also as mediated through the experiences and perspectives of different generations, cultures, and identities in a world both remarkable and devastating for the contradictions that cohabit there. This is the duality of the human condition, which we are tasked to simultaneously embrace and overcome.

UTP and TIFF visit The Far Shore

On June 30th, 2010, University of Toronto Press and TIFF Cinematheque got together to celebrate the release of Johanne Sloan’s Joyce Wieland’s The Far Shore, the newest addition to the Canadian Cinema series, with a screening of the title film The Far Shore.

The event, held at Jackman Hall at the AGO, featured an introduction from Johanne Sloan, the author, and Georgiana Uhlyarik, Assistant Curator, Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Ontario. Uhlyarik opened the evening with a talk about Joyce Wieland, the artist, and Tom Thomson; his art and influence on Canada. Sloan then gave a short introduction to the film, and invited attendees to stay for a discussion following the screening.

As the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, we were treated to beautiful scenes filled with Canadian landscape, and the romantic melodrama surrounding the character of Tom McLeod, a painter in love with a married woman in the early twentieth century. Set two years after the real Tom Thomson’s death, the film imagines the story leading up to Tom Thomson’s mysterious drowning in Algonquin Park.

Following the screen, Sloan, a Wieland expert, invited the roomful of attendees to ask questions about Wieland’s film, its production, and her art. Following a lively discussion in the theatre, we moved outside as Sloan continued answering questions as she signed books.

Be sure to join UTP and TIFF again for more screenings and lectures from the Canadian Cinema series as we launch the next two installments: Allan King’s A Married Couple by Zoe Druick and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg by Darren Wershler. Watch for these events this September!

UTP & TIFF to Co-Publish Canadian Cinema Series

Tom McSorley Atom Egoyan's The AdjusterToday, we’re proud to announce an exciting venture with the Toronto International Film Festival! TIFF is partnering with UTP in the development, promotion, and distribution of the publications in the Canadian Cinema series. Working in tandem with UTP, TIFF will host screenings and distribute books in the series at its retail outlets.

“This is an exciting partnership for UTP, for our authors, scholars, and cinephiles everywhere. We are delighted to be working with TIFF to bring the best of Canadian cinema onto the screen and into bookstores everywhere,” said John Yates, President, Publisher, and CEO of University of Toronto Press.

“We’re extremely excited to be working with one of the best, most established presses in the country on this much-needed series which turns the spotlight on key films in our filmmaking history,” said Steve Gravestock, Associate Director of Canadian Programming for TIFF. “Many of the films discussed in this series – including The Adjuster and The Far Shore – have been sadly neglected in terms of scholarship. This excellent series helps contextualize these seminal works in terms of both film and social history.”

A series of short books devoted to the best of Canadian film, aimed at cinephiles and academics alike, the Canadian Cinema series debuted in September of 2008, with the publication of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence by Bart Beaty and Denys Arcand’s Le Déclin de l’empire américain and Les Invasions barbares by Andre Loiselle. Under the direction of series editors Will Straw and Bart Beaty, the series will launch its third volume, Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster, at the 34th Toronto International Film Festival. ®

Written by the founder of the Canadian Film Institute, Tom McSorley, Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster charts the genesis, production, distribution, and critical reception of Egoyan’s breakthrough film.

“We have always envisioned the books in the Canadian Cinema series as being written for the type of engaged and discriminating cinema-goers that have helped make TIFF such an important global cultural event, and we are confident that this association will allow these film fans to appreciate Canadian film on another level,” says Bart Beaty, Professor of Communications Studies at the University of Calgary.

Filmgoers will have the chance to see McSorley chat with Atom Egoyan on Tuesday, September 15th at a special Master Class with Atom Egoyan presented by the Festival. For information about tickets, please visit www.tiff.net.

The fourth volume in the series, Joyce Wieland’s The Far Shore by Johanne Sloan is due out later this year, with plans for two more volumes to appear in the fall of 2010.