Cosa Nostra, also known as Mafia in English, is a Sicilian secret criminal society that originated in Sicily in the 1860’s. The North American mafia derived from this secret criminal society which initiated with the Sicilian/Southern Italian emigration wave – the Italian Diaspora – at the advent of the mid 19th century. Although rooted in the Sicilian traditional organized crime, the North American Mafia, however, came to symbolize Italian organized crime overall. Expose of the Italian Mafia sub-culture has been the subject of many films, among the most prominent – Scarface (1932) and The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974). Reflective of different time periods, each film depicts the utilization of violence in a distinct manner.
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Scarface depicts the rise and fall of the murderous/maniacal gangster, Tony “Scarface” Camonte, with legendary actor Paul Muni in the lead role. The film was produced by eccentric businessman/aviator Howard Hughes and directed by one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors, Howard Hawks. The film is loosely based on the life of the infamous Chicago, mob boss, Al “Scarface” Capone. Scarface was apart of a film trilogy to depict/examine the gangster persona which exploded on the scene at the advent of the 1930’s. Unlike the other trilogy constituents – Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931) – who blamed societal elements for the title character’s anti-social/violent behavior, Scarface portrays the gangster as nothing more than a homicidal “murderous beast.”
Tony Camonte and the other characters are remorseless, ignorant, and childish criminals whose violent acts are solely predicated on a sheer lust for murder and power. A number of restrictions/renditions had to be imposed in order for the film to be released and make it socially palatable – among them being the sub-title “Shame of the Nation” added. Considered an undisputed masterpiece, the violence was brutal and excessive enough, however, to contribute the film’s uniqueness for that time period.
The Godfather and The Godfather II
The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974) take in-depth journey into the violence-infested culture of the infamous Mafia underworld with the typical elements of brutal rage and naked terror working hand in had. As part of a trilogy, the films are based on the novels by Italian-American author, Mario Puzo. Francis Ford Coppola directed and who co-wrote the screenplay with Puzo for both films as well.
The central Mafiosi characters – the Corleone family, their associates, etc. – are depicted, however, with considerable depth and psychological complexity. In The Godfather, Sonny, the eldest Corleone son, in the wake of the ‘first’ Pearl Harbor attack says “those damn Japs gotta lotta a nerve bombing Pearl Harbor like that”. Michael, the youngest Corleone son, then responds “there’re a lot of guys (in the spirit of patriotism) who are signing up to fight.” Sonny then calls them “a bunch of suckers- everyone of them.” When Michael asks “how can you say that”, Sonny responds “because they fight, kill, and die for people that they don’t even know.” In contrast, the characters of The Godfather films kill and die for people they do know – especially for family.
The protection of family honor, pride, etc. – intrinsic of the Sicilian criminal code – constitutes the usage of violence. Michael, the second son, was a reluctant participant in the Corleone family/mafia underworld. Once his father, Vito, was attacked by enemies; however, he was compelled to engage himself. The montage of assassinations and deaths at the climax of each film – a distinct characteristic – epitomizes how violence is used as a means to an end when it comes to safeguarding family members and livelihood. Scarface and The Godfather I and II serve as an excellent yet frightening example of the intrinsic nature of societal violence no matter what class.
Paoli, Letizia. Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Crime Pays: The Hollywood Gangster from 1930 to 1938 (2000)by Rebecca Cullers and Jessica Wolpert. Web.