'The Mafia': How The Mafia Infiltrated America (and the Movies)

James Cagney and William Wellman in The Public Enemy (1931)

It is the symbiotic relationship between the underworld and the reverential film culture that documents and fictionalises it that perpetuates the appeal of gangster movies, biographies and documentaries.

The Mafia: The Bloody, Brutal World of La Cosa Nostra

Distributor: Acorn (UK)
Cast: Joseph Pistone, Henry Hill, Bill Bonnano, Dominick Montiglio
UK Release date: 2010-07-19

In Joseph D. Pistone’s engrossing 1987 non-fiction book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, the ex-FBI agent recounts an occasion during which his mentor, the hitman Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero, discussed the benefits of being a gangster. Said Ruggiero:

“You can lie, you can cheat, you can steal, you can kill people – legitimately. You can do anything you goddamn want, and nobody can say anything about it. Who wouldn’t want to be a wiseguy?”

Well, whilst most people don’t want to be gangsters, it’s safe to concede that the overall appeal of the subject nevertheless ensures that viewers eagerly consume material like this. The Mafia: The Bloody, Brutal World of La Cosa Nostra, an excellent 200-minute 2-Disc DVD documentary from Acorn Media is not, as the title would suggest, an exhaustive study of the history of the Mafia, but it does offer a slightly disjointed -- albeit thoroughly addictive -- insight into the labyrinthine, brutal word of La Cosa Nostra. It also goes some way to sating one’s voyeuristic tendency to gawp curiously at the evil that men do, and the havoc it can wreak.

Largely concentrating on a couple of the main New York crime families, the production values of The Mafia are good and, on a superficial level, the film certainly fulfills aesthetic expectations. Night-time exterior shots of gloomy New York City tenement blocks pick out lone, dimly lit rooms that are animated by the spinning ceiling fans inside, while the period ‘60s and ‘70s reconstructions are beautifully graded and colour-muted, and feature montages of half-shadowed thickly-set faces grouped together ‘round meeting tables, fat cigars sending backlit smoke skywards, and suited-and-booted groups sitting two abreast inside sliding slabs of gleaming black Cadillac.

Also, the selection of interviewees is impressive too, some of whom were in the thick of the action on the street: the raspy-voiced Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas; the late Bill Bonnano, the fatherly and kind-looking ex-gangster son of the legendary crime boss Joe Bonnano, and the former Gambino associate Dominick Montiglio. Also present are several current and former high-ranking and key members of the FBI and the government, all instrumental in undercover operations against the mob over the years.

Perhaps the most interesting interviewee of all, however, is the elusive Pistone. Not only does he articulately reminisce about his extraordinary time as Donnie Brasco, but he also displays a refreshing fatalistic attitude to the danger and marginalisation he faces, courtesy of an allegedly still-valid contract on his head. Additionally, he exudes such a tough, gruff New York City swagger that it comes as no surprise at all that he managed to deceive the Mafia so convincingly that they had plans to make him a full ‘made’ member of the organisation.

However, the subject’s massive scope is what creates a minor problem with The Mafia. There is enough information out there to create weeks of documentaries about the history and culture of the Italian Mafia -- both in the US and elsewhere -- but in order to condense the material into a digestible chunk of media like this, any production must be selective about what is featured, and cherry-picking highlights that are linked, albeit sometimes tenuously, but are not necessarily cohesive, or directly related, can result in a slightly flabby narrative.

The Mafia also lacks a strong and progressive linear timeline, and jumps around between decades and continents a little too much. Is the documentary a potted history of the New York Mafia during a particular period in the '70s? Yes. Does it also touch upon the beginnings of the Mafia in the early part of the 20th century? Yes. Do people randomly appear with stories that, whilst fascinating, don’t really seem to follow on from previous material discussed? Yes again.

It seems as if the producers felt they needed to cover key moments in Mafia history (the slayings of Carmine Galante and anti-Mafia Italian judge Giovanni Falcone, the rise to power of John Gotti), but didn’t really think carefully enough about the form over the content of the programme. The content is, by and large, absolute dynamite (the original FBI surveillance footage shown is amazing), yet the format is a little haphazard, and the diversity of material doesn’t always completely gel together.

This problem comes to a head as focus is lost in the latter half, when the documentary begins to concentrate on contemporary Sicilian efforts to fight the stranglehold of the Italian Mafia. Again, although this is very interesting material, it jars against the rich, descriptive, atmospherically-shot and altogether more filmic sequences and recollections set in New York City (perhaps the noirish lighting, the neon-washed streets, and the foreboding, gravelly voices of the documentary’s participants appeal to the cineaste in me). Stylistically speaking, the documentary excels more with the New York City-centric material, which is unsurprising considering the rich American cinematic heritage available for visual and narrative inspiration.

The lack of cohesion is only a small complaint, however. The stories told and the tragedies and dramas documented are totally involving, and are occasionally even imbued with a kind of brutal poeticism. One of the highlights of The Mafia, for me, is a jolting little moment during which the imposing Montiglio describes memories of his former mob colleagues, and their appearance in the recurring, terrifying nightmare he suffers from:

“I have a recurring dream, where I leave Nino’s house, and his Cadillac is parked in the driveway… and I’m walking up the driveway, and Nino, Roy, Chris, Anthony, Joey, they’re all hidden under Nino’s Cadillac, and as I’m walking by, Roy looks up at me and says ‘Hey Dominick, come to hell with us’”.

This chilling and strangely microcosmic moment encapsulates, in a short sound-bite, the world portrayed in The Mafia: frightening and haunting, possessed of a landscape littered with bodies and memories of those lost to the battles, deceit and betrayal on the streets, and where thoughts turn to the possibility that judgment and retribution are due when maker is finally met. (It’s also worth pointing out that The Mafia is shockingly bloody and visceral here and there, with discussions about the methodical dismemberment of ‘whacked’ victims being particularly disturbing).

However, despite the factual horrors discussed and shown, The Mafia nevertheless draws you in; it’s almost hypnotic in its focus on the minutiae of mob life. Fans of gangster movies will inevitably bring expectations with them, and those expectations will be met, so thank James Cagney, film noir, Scorsese, Coppola, Pacino, De Niro and a plethora of other actors, writers and directors for taking true-life as inspiration and ensuring the gangster genre has been, and remains, so brilliantly compelling and thoroughly cinematic.

It is the symbiotic relationship between the underworld and the reverential film culture that documents and fictionalises it that perpetuates the appeal of gangster movies, biographies and documentaries. Ultimately, I’m sure this popularity will endure for as long as viewers wish to take a peek into the dark side of humanity, albeit from the safety of an armchair or a cinema seat.

This programme, like many other visual media featuring organized crime, offers a narrative that posits itself somewhere between celluloid mythology and sobering reality. When we watch the stylish reconstructions featured in The Mafia, and listen to the exciting, hair-raising and true testimony of the participants – some of whom seem hewn from the iconography of gangster movies past – it all seems so breathlessly dramatic that we perhaps need to keep reminding ourselves: it’s not a movie, it’s not a movie, it’s not a movie……

There were no extras on this double-disc.


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