Why we adore gangster movies like The Traitor and The Irishman

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Newly released gangster epic The Traitor is the latest crime epic for movie fans to obsess over.

Chosen as the Italian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards, The Traitor from director Marco Bellocchio tells the true story of Sicilian Mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta.

A major figure in Italian crime who was also active in the United States of America, Buscetta faced major legal troubles before becoming totally disillusioned with mafia life as he was dealt family tragedy.

Turning into an informant for the authorities, Buscetta betrayed details of the mafia organisation.

The new film sees Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino star as Buscetta in an entertaining and large scope examination of ageing solitary figure in mafia life.

However, what is drawing artists and audiences to tales of such figures?

“We have seen so many movies made in the genre and over such a long period…it’s a staple and therefore it can easily drown in clichés,” said Adrian Wootton OBE, CEO of Film London and the British Film Commission, who recently presented Bellocchio with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Shots in the Dark festival.

Noting the success of last year’s Martin Scorsese epic The Irishman too, Wootton added: “It’s interesting to me that it’s taken two real veteran masters of cinema in terms of Scorsese and Bellocchio – both of whom in their eighth decade – to bring a fresh cut to this and show you things and do things cinematically you haven’t seen before.”

Whilst bloody violence and criminality evidently permeate through these films, it is often the morally ambivalent and complicated characters that draw us in.

Wootton adds: “You do have a sense that if it’s approached in a particular way with a real desire to be authentic and with character complexity – with the more resonance and depth that the characters have – that they’re not one-sided, cardboard cut out figures pulling machine guns out and snorting cocaine.

“You do get a sense of their family life, their different interdependencies in their relationships and their contradictions, and that gives you hope in the gangster genre that there is still life in the old dog yet.”

He opines that there are scenes in The Traitor that you “genuinely haven’t seen before in a gangster movie.”

Like Scorsese’s scenes in The Irishman which ground the character of Robert De Niro’s hitman Frank Sheeran in a social-historical context with a past in the Korean War, The Traitor too is concerned about where the gangster subcultures fit into wider Italian society and its relationship with the Catholic Church.

Wootton adds: “Almost, Bellocchio isn’t interested in the gangster genre, he’s interested in how the story fits in the wider social and political context of Italian life and he’s giving you a slice of history.”

It is noteworthy than many of the most notable films of the gangster genre are grounded into biographical tales of real-life criminals, stretching back to the original Scarface film, based on the life of Al Capone.

So, does this grounding in reality also add to their success?

Wootton notes: “When a filmmaker is drawing on a well of truth in some sense and there’s genuine incidents they can use, it has a strength that a narrative that swirls the conventions and clichés around to make them fresher doesn’t.”

Often in these portrayals, especially those with a historical basis, women seem to be sidelined or carry little screen-time.

The debate about representation in the gangster genre reached fever pitch with The Irishman over the character of Frank’s silently judging daughter Peggy, played by Oscar-winner Anna Paquin.

Some felt the character was underdeveloped and lacking in a voice, while others praised the use of her small role as a pivotal moral compass.

“I think they would say that they are representing the reality of that particular closed society and unit,” explains Wootton of Scorsese and Bellocchio, “the way that it is an incredibly male-dominated, misogynistic, and controlling culture.”

However, unlike Peggy Sheeran in The Irishman, the character of Buscetta’s Brazilian third wife Maria Cristina de Almeida Guimarães (Maria Fernanda Cândido) is not a silent witness.

“I think she brings a real depth and conviction to the portrayal of his family in that film,” says Wootton.

“While that film and gangster movies are very much about men, I do think The Traitor is doing quite a lot to give a convincing familial and marital context to the Buscetta story and the women in it aren’t just clichés.”

However, as we can see across decades of film history, genres are not fixed and do evolve over time, from horror to romantic comedies.

Yet, in terms of representation this process of change is beginning to pick up, albeit slowly, both in front of and behind the camera in terms of diverse representation.

On where gangster movies fit into this evolution, Wootton notes: “I think the genre still has some way to go.”

The Traitor is out now in select cinemas and via virtual theatrical release screenings seen here, while The Irishman is available on Netflix.

What is your favourite gangster film? Let us know in the comments below.

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