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MAFIA

Why Italian cinema is starting to glamorize the mafia

For years it was only American filmmakers who glorified mafiosi, while Italian cinema showed the grittier reality of organized crime. Now that's starting to change. Italian film expert Dana Renga traces the shift.

Why Italian cinema is starting to glamorize the mafia
'The Traitor', a recent mafia drama that caused controversy in Italy. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

For almost a century, American filmmakers have glamorized the mafia, depicting their ranks as so charismatic and quick-witted that you might want to invite them over for dinner.

Audiences saw this most recently in 'The Irishman', which reunites a star cast of the usual suspects – Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci – but also in 'The Sopranos' and 'Boardwalk Empire'.

The mafia’s glamorized sheen in America’s collective conscience might be due to the fact that the mafia never attained much power in the US. Compared with Italy, fewer lives have been lost and fewer businesses destroyed by the organized crime syndicate. Today many see the mafia as a relic of the past.

Not so in Italy, where mafias remain as powerful and dangerous as ever.

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Their menace has been reflected in Italian films and television series, which have long cast mobsters in a negative light.

But as someone who studies media depictions of the mafia, I’ve noticed a shift: Italian films and TV shows have started to glorify criminality, crafting and portraying mafiosos as alluring antiheroes.

In Italy, a break from tradition

It’s long been common practice in Hollywood to cast conventionally attractive actors as sympathetic criminal antiheroes. Humphrey Bogart in 'King of the Underworld', Al Pacino in 'The Godfather' trilogy and Denzel Washington in 'American Gangster' are just a few examples.

However, this practice is a relatively new phenomenon in Italy.

In Italian films from the 1960s and 1970s, Italian gangsters were depicted as shady and charmless.

In the popular Italian mafia biopics of the 1990s and 2000s, which included titles like 'One Hundred Steps' and 'Placido Rizzotto', they appeared as vicious, repulsive villains.

But that started to change in the 21st century. In 2005, director Michele Placido released 'Romanzo Criminale', a film about the Roman mafia that featured a cast of young, attractive mobsters.

More recently, good-looking, sympathetic criminals abound in the TV series 'Gomorrah', while slick, teenaged gangsters populate Claudio Giovannesi’s 2019 film 'Piranhas'.

A controversial portrayal

Marco Bellocchio’s most recent film, 'The Traitor', epitomizes this trend. Released in the US on January 31st, it was also Italy’s submission for Best International Feature Film in the Academy Awards.

At its centre is an ex-mobster named Tommaso Buscetta, played by the attractive Pierfrancesco Favino, sometimes known as “the Italian George Clooney”.

READ ALSO: The Traitor: True story of mafia informant is Italy's entry for the Oscars

The film tells the true story of Buscetta, who shared vital information about the inner workings of the mafia with Italian authorities in the early 1980s. His revelations sparked the “maxi trials”, which ended in 1987 and led to 342 convictions.

Buscetta, however, is viewed with suspicion by many Italians. To this day, his motivations for turning over evidence to the state are cloaked in mystery. In Italy, he’s hardly viewed as an ambassador for the anti-mafia cause. Nonetheless, 'The Traitor' turns him into an alluring antihero.

For these reasons, some Italians weren’t happy about this portrayal. It also didn’t help that the film was released on the anniversary of a mafia rampage that killed an anti-mafia prosecutor, his wife and their bodyguard.

Follow the money

These films and series are popular inside and outside of Italy; 'Gomorrah', for example, is distributed in over 190 countries.

Within Italy, however, protests against these films and series are commonplace. Many Italians are uncomfortable with the way they depict organized crime with characters who are charming and easy to like. Some of the loudest objections come from people who have lost loved ones to the mafia.

For example, the mayor of Naples claimed that 'Gomorrah' corrodes “the brains, minds and hearts of hundreds of young people”, while one judge accused the series’ creators of “excessively humanizing crime”.

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However, the success of American TV series like 'The Sopranos' conveyed an important lesson to Italian writers and producers: you don’t have to be a good guy to captivate audiences outside of Italy.

So for the last 15 years, Italian film and television producers have become famous by presenting organized crime in ways that are an anathema for many Italians, but find eager viewers around the world.

Dana Renga, Associate Professor of Italian Studies and Film, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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CHRISTMAS

Seven classic films to watch for an Italian Christmas

What to watch over this year's quieter than usual Christmas holidays – whether you're in Italy or just missing it.

Seven classic films to watch for an Italian Christmas
Italian Christmas cinema is a whole genre of its own. Photo: Jeshoots.com via Pexels

Vacanze di Natale (Christmas Holidays)

Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we: this 1983 farce is the original cinepanettone or ‘cinematic Christmas cake’, the name given to a particular genre of Italian Christmas comedy that’s every bit as sugary, festive and familiar as a loaf of panettone. 

They’re less Hallmark romcom, more Carry On film, with visual gags, double entendres and questionable attitudes aplenty. Good taste it ain’t, but they at least have the advantage of being easy to understand even if your Italian is limited.

Vacanze di Natale is the mother of all cinepanettone, a culture-clash comedy about rich Milanese colliding with a rough and ready Rome family over a ski break in the Alps.

Other classics of the genre – most of which star the same two comedians, Massimo Boldi and Christian De Sica – include Natale sul Nilo (Christmas on the Nile), Natale a New York (Christmas in New York), and Natale a Rio (Christmas in Rio). Yes, there’s a formula.

Natale in casa Cupiello (The Nativity Scene)

At the exact other end of the spectrum is this classic family drama by Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo, written in 1931, adapted for Italian TV in 1977 and now appearing in a new version this year on Rai 1.

‘Christmas in the Cupiello house’, as its original title translates, tells the story of the Cupiellos, two parents in Naples whose children’s desires threaten to pull the family apart. Things come to a head on Christmas Eve, as the father of the family attempts to demonstrate to his son the importance of the traditional presepe, or nativity scene. 

Tune in to Rai 1 on December 22nd for the new version, or find the 1977 classic online.

La Freccia Azzurra (The Blue Arrow)

This lovely 1996 animation, based on a fairy tale by Italian children’s author Gianni Rodari, was repackaged for American audiences as How The Toys Saved Christmas – but watch the original to find a story based around ‘Italy’s Santa’: La Befana, the witch who brings Italian children gifts the night before Epiphany (January 6th). 

La Befana (who was turned in the American version into a kindly grandma with a toyshop) falls ill the evening she is due to deliver her presents, allowing her dastardly assistant Scarafoni to step in. He secretly plans to sell off the toys – including the Blue Arrow of the title, a model train – to rich kids, but the toys have different ideas and conspire to deliver themselves to the children who deserve them most.

Set in a town based on Orbetello in Tuscany in the 1930s, it’s elegantly animated, beautifully scored and very, very charming.

Regalo di Natale (Christmas Present)

If you’re looking for something more substantial than a cinepanettone, this 1986 psychological drama is more main course than dessert.

Four old friends and one wealthy acquaintance meet for a game of poker on Christmas Eve. As the rounds unfold, we learn why each player is determined to win, and why their friendships have turned sour. 

It’s comic too, but with depth and an intriguing narrative that make it a compelling alternative to the usual festive fare. If you enjoy it, there’s a 2004 sequel: Il rivincita di Natale, or Christmas Rematch. 

La Banda dei Babbi Natale (The Santa Claus Gang)

This good-natured comedy from 2010 stars comedians Aldo Baglio, Giovanni Storti and Giacomo Poretti, a well-known comic trio who have been making films together for more than 20 years.

Here they play three hapless pals from the same bocce (boules) team in Milan, who end up in jail on Christmas Eve after being mistaken for a gang of burglars who, like them, are dressed in Santa suits. They find themselves recounting the various personal tribulations that have brought each of them there in order to convince the chief inspector (perennially likeable Angela Finocchiaro) that they’re innocent.

It has plenty of what Italian comedy does best: lots of silliness, self-deprecation, and a warm heart that never slides into total schmaltz. 

Parenti Serpenti (Dearest Relatives, Poisonous Relations)

Darker but possibly even funnier is Parenti Serpenti (literally ‘snake relatives’), a black comedy from 1992 that lays bare the cynical truth about many family Christmases: everyone’s terribly glad to see their relatives, so long as it’s only once a year.

The family in question have reunited at their parents’ home in Sulmona, Abruzzo, and the celebrations are going smoothly until the elderly mother announces over Christmas dinner that she and their increasingly senile father no longer want to live alone, and their four adult children must decide which one of them will take them in in exchange for a share of their pension and inheritance of the house. 

The children and their spouses end up competing among themselves to prove why they’re unsuitable to look after their ageing parents, airing long-hidden grievances and secrets in the process.

Don’t watch if you want your cockles warmed, do watch if you have a dark sense of humour – or if you want to be reminded why big family Christmases aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.

Trading Places (Una Poltrona Per Due)

Why is a Hollywood movie on this list – especially one that isn’t exactly considered a Christmas classic in English-speaking countries?

Because this 1983 identity swap comedy has wormed its way far deeper into Italian hearts than arguably anyone else’s. It became a fixture on primetime TV in Italy in the late ’90s, airing almost every Christmas Eve on Italia 1, and continues to attract millions of viewers each time, regularly beating more recent festive offerings.

Most people say it’s essentially because Italia 1 worked out it was cheaper to buy the rights for an older movie, and the viewing public are creatures of habit. But is there more to it?

I’d argue that Trading Places – or ‘One Armchair for Two’, as it’s known in Italy – is actually the perfect Italian Christmas film: a bit slapstick, very ’80s and deeply cynical (think A Christmas Carol but where Scrooge doesn’t abandon his money-grubbing ways, just teaches Bob Crachit to game the system too). Our two heroes – a down-and-out hustler played by Eddie Murphy, who in a bizarre social experiment ends up stepping into the shoes of wealthy banker Dan Ackroyd – triumph by being that most Italian of qualities, furbo (‘crafty’ or ‘smart’). 

Parts of the film haven’t aged well (the N-word, blackface, jokes about sexual assault…), but if you can ignore those it remains a satisfying screwball comedy (as well as an excellent demonstration of how insider trading works, which you can’t say about too many Christmas movies). You can catch it on Italia 1 this year, as usual, at 9:30pm on December 24th. 

Other Hollywood Christmas films that are firm favourites in Italy include Mamma, ho perso l’aereo (‘Mummy, I missed the plane’ – Home Alone), Mary Poppins (watch the Italian version just to marvel at the ingenious translations), Gremlins, and Il Grinch (you can probably guess that one).

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