In fiction, criminals and nostalgia traditionally go hand in hand
In the pilot episode of the Sopranos series (Soprano Family), available in the HBO Max catalog, a situation is established in which the protagonist, Tony Soprano, consults a psychiatrist after having passed out. During the consultation, the doctor asks the necessary questions of a personal nature (albeit reluctantly due to his client’s connection to organized crime) to find the root of so much anxiety that plagues Tony.
At one point, he lets out a sense of nostalgia for the simpler times, where there was a sense of respect between members of the Mafia and society itself in general seemed more stable. If, for the series, it presents an important element on a character that the spectator does not yet know, apart from that its representation goes directly through a characteristic of Mafia films.
This genre is quite old, with the first copy dated 1906 entitled Black Hand, although this position has long been occupied by Les Mousquetaires de l’Allée des Cochons. However, it was not until the 1930s that this type of production took on real importance and even domination on the film market. It was the period of the Great Depression, added to the previous years of the inflexible dry law, that sparked the image of the gangster in the popular imagination; real figures who operated outside the law, well dressed and even heroic in the face of death.
1932 Scarface is a good example; inexperienced gangster Tony Camonte, a member of the Italian immigrant community, begins to climb the ladder of power until he comes to a conclusion that places him in a violent struggle against the police (traditionally, as a force of oppression of these communities). Unsurprisingly, the film was heavily censored upon release, although director Howard Hawks’ goal wasn’t to glorify the violent crowd lifestyle.
In the article Melodramas of Ethnicity and Masculinity: Generic Transformations of Late Twentieth Century American Film Gangsters, by Larissa Ennis, presents a point of view on this generation of mafia films. “The Ban Gangster was the first truly popular gangster cycle, and thanks to Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931), Warner Bros. has become a leading studio of violent urban reality… The Ban-Age gangsters were criminals who defied the moral status quo by mocking the laws of interdiction and police control in order to achieve material success.
At the end of the 1930s, the clash between the gangster genre and the film regulators, mainly the Production Code Administration which responded to the Motion Production Picture Code, will weaken this segment much to the point that productions of this type are made. rarer and the characters who followed the archetype of the gangster would be “transported” to works of the genre Noir mainly.
Then came 1972 and Francis Ford Coppola released the first Godfather, a critical and public success and the biggest box office of the year. More than anything, the adaptation of Mario Puzo’s book broadened the horizons of the Mafia cinematic model, focusing not only on the violent nature of street wars but also on the cultural significance that these individuals, as immigrants or descendants of Italian immigrants, brought from his homeland.
Two years later came the sequel, considered by many to be superior to the original, with two timelines unfolding simultaneously: the present with Michael dealing with the burden of leadership and very focused on the 1950s United States, especially in this which concerns money and politics. . The other tale follows young Vito Corleone fleeing Italy and establishing his life in North America, the latter much more concerned with showing how Italian cultural strength guided the customs of this newly arrived community in a foreign land.
Inevitably, the popular imagination of gangster films had now come back to life, with an impression linked no longer to the material excesses and violence presented in the films of the first half of the 20th century, but to the intensely cultural mobster presented in The Godfather. .
Another point Coppola later raised is that she subtly presents a certain appeal to nostalgia for a simpler America, something noticeable when put side by side with Michael’s complex situation in the present with Vito’s rise to the past, where friends and foes are said to be easy to spot.
Author John G. Cawaleti, in 1975, drew attention to the metamorphosis presented in The Godfather for Mafia Cinema in his book La Nouvelle Mythologie du Crime. “The new crime mythology is preceded by Puzo using the word ‘family’ to symbolize the criminal organization. It also has the concept of father, mother and children included. Even when it is necessary to commit a crime, the objective is the protection of the family. Therefore, the romanticization of crime, which follows the folkloric figure of Robin Hood, has taken a new path in viewing crime as positive. “
Ten years later and a new production would definitely show the link between the gangster genre and nostalgia. Director Sergio Leone had already built a career in Hollywood in 1984 as a master of the western in historic partnerships with Clint Eastwood. His most successful films were those that were part of the dollar trilogy: For a Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and Three Men in Conflict.
For decades Leone tried to put into practice the dream of adapting the book The Hoods, written by ex-mobster Harry Goldberg under the pseudonym Harry Gray, released in 1953, and biographical on part of his life in the Mafia. After convincing the author, Leone began pre-production of Once Upon A Time in America with Robert De Niro in the lead role. In general terms, the film follows the gangster Noodles through youth and adulthood, showing how he entered the criminal world and, most importantly, suffered the consequences of that choice.
However, more than that, the friendships Noodles forge with other prospectless young people in early 20th-century New York City are what impact him the most when he reaches old age. The character is constantly shown mulling over the past, exposing the longing felt by dead friends or even inevitable changes in his old neighborhood.
It is through the narrative back and forth between past and present that Leone exposes the nostalgia felt and desired by the protagonist, without resorting to verbal declarations. This feeling moves the character forward in the current timeline and creates the necessary clues for sequences from the past, which serve precisely to reinforce that feeling in the present.
No wonder, this once perfect idea of the mafia becomes, in the following years, a recurring element. The Good Companions of 1990, considered the great representative of the genre in this decade, uses the protagonist’s nostalgia as an element of development, from the moment he joins the Mafia until the consequences.
Finally, by the time Sopranos debuted in 1999, the gangster genre was already quite different from what it once was. Not only did the mafia style have to be adapted to a reality in which technology was more present in everyday life, but this advancement automatically generates a nostalgic longing for a bygone time (the same as in movies like Scarface and Little Caesar). Nostalgia then becomes an unexpected and present element in the criminal life of cinema.
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