Take any list recording the greatest films of all time, and I can almost guarantee that it will be dominated by Mafia movies. And understandably so. A genre of extremities — artfully weaving wide-ranging themes of love, success, family, violence and death — there’s no other quite like it. With their bold visuals, brash dialogues and blaring soundtracks, Mafia films provide a ceaselessly satisfying sensory overload. But above all, what truly distinguishes the genre is the universality of it. Merging a high caliber of the technical aspects of filmmaking with crowd-pleasing elements of “popcorn cinema”, such as striking performances and iconic lines, the films contain all the elements of an endlessly rewatchable classic, appealing to all — both critics and general audiences alike.

The end of an era: Scorsese’s final Mafia hit, The IrishmanTWITTER/ROCKERATHEART

Despite this, following the release of Martin Scorsese’s latest picture, The Irishman, one glaringly obvious fact emerged: the Mafia film was finished. Scorsese’s 2019 picture opted to abide by the traditional format of a mobster film, hence in theory should have been a cinematic triumph much like its predecessors. However, while critical reception remained chiefly positive, this time, general audiences were left largely unimpressed. Complaints arose around an unnecessarily long runtime, a lack of diversity, and the film even faced accusations of sexism. General consensus was that, despite the filmic mastery of Scorsese’s swansong, the genre had been exhausted, and the golden age of gangster movies was officially over, with the director himself vowing to never make a Mafia picture again.

“Gangster films have been criticised for their lack of diversity, their treatment of women, and their extreme violence. All these stem from the image of machismo perpetuated by Mafia film, in which men exert authority, influence, and power, meanwhile there is a distinct lack of female agency.”

Mobster classic Goodfellas, which chronicles the life of the infamous Henry HillTWITTER/M7MOD1907

This denunciation of gangster film marks a monumental change in the world of cinema. In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was released, and the epic story of the Corleone family became a huge critical and commercial success, accounting for nearly 10% of gross proceeds for all films in 1972. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the award for Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and is widely considered one of the greatest American films of all time. Two years later, The Godfather Part II garnered eleven Academy Award nominations, again winning Best Picture. The films’ successes did not go unnoticed by Hollywood studios, and as a direct result throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a steady flow of films about the Mafia were issued, and the majority of these were immensely successful, both critically and commercially. An example is Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a film concentrating on the story of mobster Henry Hill and his relationship with the Lucchese and Gambino crime families. The picture was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won the award for Best Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci’s performance. However, although they succeeded in the box office, some Mafia films received backlash, particularly from the Italian American community, due to their inclusion of vilifying stereotypes against characters of Italian ethnicity, continually casting them as criminals and lowlifes.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira Hancock in ScarfaceTWITTER/NICOLEKIDMANS

These Mafia films, most notably through the fruitful filmography of Martin Scorsese, continued into the 2000s, albeit with less potency and popularity than before. Perhaps, this lessening demand for the genre was partly due to societal progression and increased awareness of social issues, meaning that crime films received much more reproach as audiences become more conscious of the injustices being presented before them. As aforementioned, gangster films have been criticised for their lack of diversity, their treatment of women, and their extreme violence. All these stem from the image of machismo perpetuated by Mafia film, in which men exert authority, influence, and power, while there is a distinct lack of female agency. In The Irishman, there is a sole distinguishable female character, and furthermore they are given little to no dialogue. In Scarface, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elvira is blatantly objectified, and in The Godfather Apollonia and Kay function exclusively as romantic interests for Michael Corleone. While it is true that the Mob world is a male-dominated one, this does not necessitate that women must automatically be depicted as silent symbols of sex on screen.

“It must be recognised that these films regularly provide a narrative for immigrants, a feat infrequently executed in Western cinema. Additionally, the technical aspects of most gangster films are outstanding.”

Nevertheless, this is not to flout the positive attributes of the genre. It must be recognised that these films regularly provide a narrative for immigrants, a feat infrequently executed in Western cinema. Additionally, the technical aspects of most gangster films are outstanding. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America features remarkable cinematography, most notably the famed shot of Manhattan Bridge, as well as a searing score from long-time collaborator Ennio Morricone. 1973’s Mean Streets features impeccable acting from both Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, as well as boasting the masterful screenwriting customary of a Scorsese picture. The importance of the genre is inconceivable, as Mafia films signalled a shift from the traditional Hollywood tales of romance, comedy and music, and irreversibly reshaped the face of Western cinema.

Golden age of Mafia film: Francis Ford Coppola & crew on the set of The GodfatherTWITTER/LOSTINFILM

So what does this mean for the future of Mafia film? Much like the Spaghetti Western, and other preceding genres which failed to survive the ever-changing cinematic climate, mobster films experienced their finite golden age, an era in which some of the most critically acclaimed films of all time were produced. However, as society progresses, as do filmic genres, and so perhaps in this epoch of inclusivity and diversity, it is time for a shift away from such violent male narratives.

In the final scene of The Irishman, the screenplay perhaps communicates a subliminal message relating to the fading genre, with Frank declaring: “I ain’t going nowhere.” Mafia film may be dead, but its legacy will surely endure as one of the most exceptional genres in filmmaking history. Thus, viewers should continue watching these films with an appreciation of the cinematic past, as well as hope for a more inclusive future.


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