The mythology of the Mafia is as strong as ever, largely thanks to the many cinematic contributions of Francis, Marlon, Bobby, Al, Marty et al. Craig Mathieson looks back at the origins of the mafia movie and its enduring appeal to filmmakers.
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12 May 2009 - 5:35 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

It's tempting to describe Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, which opens this week, as the definitive Mafia movie, the film that will serve as the genre's full stop. But as outstanding as Garrone's feature is, the mob flick is as tenacious and enduring as the criminal society itself. Both keep clawing their way back to power and eventual prominence.

\"\"Gomorrah is set in the slums of Naples, the southern Italian city that has long been the possession of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. The various story strands show a world beyond redemption: corruption and crime are not just the norm, they're the daily way. Journalist Roberto Saviano, who wrote the non-fiction book the movie is based on and subsequently contributed to the screenplay, is still hiding under police protection, which is something of a backhanded compliment to the source material. Then again, three of the cast – Garrone often used locals and non-actors to maintain the realism – have also since been arrested and charged with a variety of crimes, including extortion and drug dealing.

Gomorrah looks at the Mafia from the bottom up. It's a film about the young men who dream of joining, the children who are used as underage assistants, the everyday people they callously exploit. Even those who have a degree of power are ultimately functionaries, answerable with their lives to someone above them. A mistake can often result in a murder.

It's the celestial opposite of the landmark Mafia film: The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 masterpiece gives us a New York organised crime family from the top down, beginning with Marlon Brando's softly spoken, inscrutable Don Corleone, whose spirit and accomplishments gradually overtake Al Pacino's Michael, the son who believed that he could stay out of the family business.

The Godfather, and even more explicitly 1974's The Godfather: Part II, are movies about the seductive strength of capitalism – lines such as “I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse” are part of the business vernacular now. The Corleone family and their rivals earn so much money that the immortal reference “we're bigger than U.S. Steel” is delivered as they plot the feudal division of a pre-revolutionary Cuba.

(From the archives: The Movie Show reviews The Godfather\'s 1997 re-release)

Part of The Godfather's appeal – both in Mario Puzo's pulp novel and Coppola's magisterial adaptation – was that it opened up a world that had long been officially disavowed. For four decades the F.B.I.'s dictatorial director, J. Edgar Hoover, denied that the Mafia even existed in America. It was only in the early 1960s, with Robert Kennedy as his brother's Attorney-General, that Italian-American organise crime was acknowledged as a major public issue.

But if America had closed its eyes to the formal grouping, it was always in thrall to individuals such as Alphonse Capone, the infamous Depress-era boss of Chicago who became a celebrity. Capone's rise and his gangland bravura made him a model for some of the first, and best, Hollywood movies about criminal figures. In Mervyn LeRoy's 1931 classic, Little Caesar, ambition runs deep in Edward G. Robinson's Rico, the aspiring gangster who moves to Chicago to make his mark. Violently assertive, the “Little Caesar” usurps his superiors and eventually turns on his one friend.

The few years of talkies prior to the introduction and strict enforcement of The Hays Code in 1934 saw a succession of street smart, nuanced films about organised crime figures. Howard Hughes produced and Howard Hawks directed Scarface in 1932, with Paul Muni as Antonio “Tony” Camonte, a violently ambitious gangster who creates chaos in his need to assert his control.

Scarface was remade in 1983, transposed to Miami where Cuban refugees were taking over the burgeoning cocaine importation business. Brian De Palma's movie wasn't about the Cosa Nostra, but it's a prime example of how the Mafia flick echoed through popular culture. The circle is completed in Gomorrah where young hopefuls play with guns and shout, “I'm number one! Tony Montana!” taking the name of Al Pacino's Scarface character in vain.

For its international release Gomorrah has an eminently suitable patron. “Martin Scorsese presents” declare the film's various posters, linking the picture to a filmmaker who has repeatedly explored the Mafia's workings. As far back as 1973's Mean Streets the director who grew up in New York's “Little Italy” had Harvey Keitel's Charlie torn between the individuals who matter to him (such as Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy) and the organisation whose ranks he wants to ascend (it's fair to say that Scorsese himself had the same struggle with the Catholic Church).

Scorsese's great Mafia works remain 1990's Goodfellas and 1995's Casino, two epochal works of the genre. Both films were adapted from books by former journalist Nicholas Pileggi, which gave them the scope to depict the steady, coruscating impact of mob life on those who lived it. The privileged life, and Scorsese's fluid camerawork, is a form of entrapment in Goodfellas, but the years and the stress steadily build, and retribution proves to be cold hearted and fierce, as Joe Pesci's Tommy ultimately discovers.

Casino, with its dazzling technique and expressive music cues, returns to a higher plane, with Pesci and Robert De Niro as the mob's men in Las Vegas. Sin City is a long way from the slums of Napoli, but both films suggest that to the Mafia you're either useful or your dead. Such a stark choice makes for primal drama, and a genre that renews itself as voraciously as its fictional protagonists and their real life contemporaries.

After all, as Michael Corleone puts it; “It's not personal. It's strictly business.”