Roberto M. Dainotto’s The Mafia: A Cultural History offers something unique in the somewhat overcrowded category of books about the Mafia and its pop culture representations: a Sicilian intellectual’s historically informed yet personal perspective on the enduring appeal of organized crime stories.
Dainotto is a professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Duke University whose previous book, Europe (In Theory), deftly used postcolonial and subaltern theory to deconstruct Eurocentrism from within Europe itself, demonstrating how theories of an advanced North and a retrograde South continue to influence contemporary understandings of culture, politics, and national identity.
His new book explores the dialectic between pop culture images of the Mafia and Mafia reality, in a historical trajectory spanning the 19th century origins of the “honored society” and present-day, transnational organized crime.
Born and raised in Sicily, Dainotto found it hard to understand how “anyone could enjoy and find entertainment or cultural nourishment in Mafia stories.” For him, the Mafia was “a sad and often depressing reality: endemic corruption, nepotistic management of the res publica, illiteracy never completely eradicated, half a million emigrants leaving their Sicilian homes and families year after year, entire cities engulfed in endless sprawls of cement, misery, violence, prevarication and abuse.”
The Mafia that Dainotto knew “had nothing to do with the spectacular dreams of grandeur of Howard Hawks’ Scarface … or with the lavishness of gangster’s lives. That was Hollywood. In Sicily, as in a Dostoevsky novel, the Mafia looked like the devil that visited Karamazov: it always had a shabby, dull, and vulgar look.”
He “grudgingly acquiesced to making peace with Mafia movies” after watching The Godfather (“Maybe this thing is a masterpiece!”), Scarface, and especially The Sopranos, “which glues me like nothing ever before to the TV set for years on end.” “Slowly but surely,” he says, “watching Mafia shows became an impassioned affair.”
“What made me love the Mafia in fiction while loathing the one in real life?” Dainotto aims to answer that question, to “understand this apparent contradiction” by analyzing “the social needs, the desires and fears, the kind of material and ideal fantasies that are satisfied by cultural representations of the Mafia.”
Dainotto focuses on “a few representative moments and works” that he regards as “milestones in the cultural history of the Mafia.” With the exception of The Sopranos and the long-running Italian TV drama La Piovra, he concentrates on films, and on certain canonical ones, Italian and American: Pietro Germi’s In the Name of the Law (1949); Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962); Scarface (Howard Hawks’ 1932 original and the 1983 Brian De Palma remake); Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962); and, most of all, the Godfather trilogy. He briefly cites a few others, including The 100 Steps and “Placido Rizzotto, Italian films about real-life anti-Mafia activists. Surprisingly, he overlooks Scorsese’s blue-collar mob dramas Mean Streets and Goodfellas and Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco.
Dainotto’s narrative begins in Sicily in the 1870s, “where fact and fiction, as in a verismo opera by Mascagni, became trompe l’oeil of each other.” Francis Coppola used Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana for the conclusion of Godfather III because it is “the very work that invented the Mafia: not the real Mafia, to be sure, but an imaginary one, grown out of the nostalgia for a lost world of mythical codes of honour, family values and rustic chivalry.” Cavalleria Rusticana has, Dainotto observes, everything Coppola needed: “Drama, ethnic ‘italianicity’, theatricality, a Sicilian setting, ritualistic killings.”
Cavalleria Rusticana first was a short story published in 1880 by Giovanni Verga, a middle-class Sicilian who craved literary fame and wealth. Like Mario Puzo a century later, Verga was frustrated by the failures of his early efforts; his novels of unrequited love among the Sicilian bourgeoisie did not make him rich. After reading Zola, whose novels were set in the underbelly of bourgeois society, Verga decided to shift gears: “what if, instead of setting the love story in the usual urban middle-class milieu, he set it in the mud of Sicily? …The exotic distance of poor and illiterate Sicily from the refined readership in Florence or Milan would only give more prominence to the shockingly new effect of local colour.”
Verga wanted to exploit the public’s eagerness to read about the Mafia, whose exploits were becoming the stuff of sensationalistic newspaper stories and government reports. However, “his own Sicilian pride … had been wounded” by depictions of Sicily as irredeemably violent. “To rehabilitate Sicilian honour,” Dainotto writes, “the Mafia had to be either denied as the defaming invention of northerners … or – better yet – reframed as a more romantic and beautiful thing: a rustic chivalry of sorts.” Hence, Cavalleria Rusticana, a tale of violated honor and bloody vengeance that was inspired by the ethnographer Giuseppe Pitre, whose “collection of folk tales, songs and popular sayings was exactly what [Verga] needed to add a touch of local colour to his writings.”
Cavalleria Rusticana was first a short story, then a stage play, then Mascagni’s opera (which remains frequently performed to this day), then three silent films, made between 1907 and 1916. When Dainotto describes Verga’s work, he could be talking about the entire genre of Mafia movies, books, and TV dramas that followed Cavalleria Rusticana: “What better then than the Mafia, a pre-modern chivalric tradition, to combat the apathy, boredom and emptiness of modern life, the daily routine of work, family, hot soup and bed!” Cavalleria Rusticana‘s virile men, with their “vital energies and unbridled passions” would serve as a kind of template for future representations.
When Verga wrote his story, the violent, predatory character of the Mafia already was evident. Far from being a Robin Hood-like association whose origins lay in the Middle Ages (or even earlier, during Arab rule of Sicily), it was the product of modernity. The Mafia emerged in the late 19th century in the wake of Italian unification, when the new Piedmont-based state was weak and certain actors could take advantage of its weaknesses, as well as the opportunities that unification’s incomplete modernization of the South presented.
However, that alone couldn’t explain why the Mafia rose in Sicily but not in other Italian regions where “a similar absence of clear laws had created the same preconditions.” The Mafia existed where “rich economic interests were at stake.” This meant western Sicily, particularly Palermo and its environs. The Mafia found the agricultural estates there, which generated a lucrative trade in citrus fruits, particularly attractive. By 1870, the citrus business “was in the hands of criminal organizations that controlled the growth, wholesale and price of lemons, as well as the industry’s labour and hiring practices.” From the lemon groves of western Sicily, “the Mafia wove its spider web to extend its control of substantial economic interests: orange and olive growth, wholesale; sulphur mines; and the nascent industry of sweet wines.”
So, from its inception, the Mafia was all about business; it secured territorial control in Palermo and its outskirts and violently eliminated any obstacles to its expanding empire. At the same time the Mafia was establishing itself in the late 19th century, the new Italian government showed Sicilians that it did not intend to keep the promises of Garibaldi’s revolution – land reform and republicanism. Instead, the North imposed onerous taxes and military conscription. When Sicilians rebelled, the government ferociously repressed the uprisings. It placed Sicily under military siege, suspending civil rights and committing atrocities against civilians. Northern Italian opinion increasingly depicted Sicilians as unruly bandits and brigands whose supposed predisposition to crime and violence was due to their genetic and cultural inferiority.
Mafiosi, who came from various social strata (the peasantry but also former aristocrats and big landowners), portrayed themselves as defenders of Sicily and as rebels against the new Italian state and its unjust laws. The cold reality, then and now, is that the Mafia is about nothing but money and power, as Verga himself realized when the evidence became too strong to ignore.
He came to regret his role in fostering a myth and ceased writing about the Mafia. There’s a parallel here to career of Francis Coppola, whose films both perpetuate a nostalgic and false image of a “better” Mafia – that of Don Vito Corleone – and condemn the Mafia of Vito’s son Michael as a ruthless enterprise that embodies the corruption, violence, and power of corporate capitalism. Like Verga, Coppola became trapped by the Mafia, repeating a successful formula. Michael’s cri de coeur in Godfather III – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”– is Coppola’s, too. (He made the least-loved of the three films because he needed the money.) No matter what else he has done as a filmmaker, Coppola always will be known mainly for The Godfather.
By the time The Sopranos debuted in 1999, the Mafia myth was pretty much played out. In fact, as Dainotto observes, David Chase’s HBO series was about the exhaustion of both the myth and the Mafia itself. (I make the same point in my book, An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America. Full disclosure: I am one of Dainotto’s sources.) Just as the Godfather saga deployed the Mafia as a metaphor for capitalism and the corruptions of the “American Dream”, in The Sopranos “once again the American Mafia movie has become an allegory for an entire nation, but this time for a nation that is in crisis.”
In recent years, the Sicilian Mafia, because of its own overreaching and ghastly violence, and the public revulsion against it, has become less powerful. Elsewhere, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the spread of globalized capitalism has fostered new “mafias”, in Russia, Asia, and Latin America. Dainotto finds them “even more terrifying than the Mafia that had taken its first steps in the lemon groves around Palermo.”
In today’s Italy, one criminal organization, Naples’ Camorra, has proved itself adaptable to the new global realities. The 2006 book Gomorrah by the journalist Roberto Saviano, and the 2008 film adaptation by director Matteo Garrone, described this new reality, in which camorristi “were the uncontested kings of organized crime, with interests that extended from Naples to the whole of Europe, to China, America, Australia and even Africa.” Oddly, Dainotto says little about Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta, a powerful crime syndicate that similarly controls its native territory but also has a transnational reach.
The final chapter of The Mafia is its least persuasive. The author cites the video game Mafia II to argue that the Mafia film genre is creatively bankrupt, doomed to repeat the same themes and conventions over and over. Dainotto found the experience of playing the game depressing. If previous Mafia stories ran the risk of romanticizing the real thing, “how much worse the Mafia seems now when it is not even a romantic fiction, a myth, but a routine of scoring points for success.”
However, as Gomorra – and other recent Italian films such as The Consequences of Love, Il Divo, Black Souls, I Am Not Afraid, Salvo and The Mafia Kills Only in Summer – illustrate, the narrative well has not run dry in la madrepatria. That’s because organized crime remains enormously powerful in Italy, linked to both business and politics. It’s American Mafia narrative that’s condemned to repetition (and parody) because Italian American organized crime itself is now in the twilight era that the Italian journalist Vittorio Zucconi has called “il declino del padrino” (the decline of the godfather). Italy, unfortunately, continues to generate more than enough raw material to keep the Mafia genre alive.