The last decade of the twentieth century was not a happy one for the Mafia. During the nineties both the United States and Italy made remarkable strides in curbing organized crime, imprisoning gangsters and dismantling their business interests. Though it would be premature to declare either the Italian or the American Mafia dead, both have been wounded, the latter perhaps mortally. But if the Mafia is a shadow of its former self, you'd hardly know it from pop culture. In fact, media images of La Cosa Nostra seem to be proliferating in direct proportion to the decline of organized crime. Not since Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather reinvented the gangster genre in the early seventies have there been so many wiseguys on screen. The past year brought the films Analyze This and Mickey Blue Eyes, and with i fratelli Weinstein, Harvey and Bob, having acquired the rights to the late Mario Puzo's final novel, Omertà, for their Miramax Films, there's at least one other high-profile Mafia movie on the way. Another may well be the fourth installment of Coppola's Godfather saga. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Leonardo Di Caprio and Andy Garcia (Al Pacino's nephew in Godfather III) are keen to sign on to the project, pending a suitable script.
On television, gangsters with Italian surnames have been a surefire audience draw, from the days of The Untouchables to contemporary cop shows like NYPD Blue. A very partial list of recent programs includes the network miniseries The Last Don and Bella Mafia, as well as biopics about John Gotti and his turncoat lieutenant Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, and, on Showtime cable, an absurdly hagiographic one about Joseph Bonanno produced by his son, Bill. But no mob-themed show has generated the critical accolades and viewer enthusiasm accorded The Sopranos, the Emmy Award-winning HBO comedy-drama that has become the cable network's most-watched series, its recent second-season premiere attended by an avalanche of hype.
Moving from The Sopranos' suburban New Jersey turf to Palermo, HBO last fall premiered Excellent Cadavers, a feature- film adaptation of Alexander Stille's 1995 book about the anti-Mafia campaign launched by two courageous Sicilian magistrates. Why is Italian-American (and Italian) organized crime such a mainstay of American pop culture, and do these images reflect the reality of the Mafia? And does the persistence of the Mafioso as a pop-culture archetype constitute ethnic defamation of Italian-Americans?
That many of today's depictions of the American Mafia are in the comic mode--The Sopranos, Analyze This, Mickey Blue Eyes, the parody Mafia!--is possible only because organized crime is much less fearsome than in its heyday. Both The Sopranos and Analyze This feature Mafiosi on the verge of a nervous breakdown, their psychological crackups reflecting the disarray of their criminal enterprises under the pressure of law enforcement and the breaking of omertà, the code of silence, by gangsters who'd rather sing than serve time. V. Zucconi, a commentator for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, analyzed this development in an article titled "America: The Decline of the Godfather." Zucconi claims that in the United States the Mafia survives mainly in its pop-culture representations, and that while it used to generate fear, today it is a source of humor. He says that in America one can observe "the funeral of the dying Mafia," an outcome he hopes one day will occur also in Italy. Is Zucconi overoptimistic?
Criminologist James Jacobs reaches a similar conclusion in his study Gotham Unbound: How New York City was Liberated from the Clutches of Cosa Nostra (NYU Press). Organized-crime-control strategies "have achieved significant success in purging Cosa Nostra from the city's social, economic, and political life," he writes. Gangsters in New York, and also in other large and small cities, are losing their foothold in the labor and industrial rackets that have been the source of their power and influence; and there is a dearth of younger, rising stars to replace aging or incarcerated leaders. The decline, says Jacobs, has been so marked that "Cosa Nostra's survival into the next millennium...can be seriously doubted." It's a different story in Italy. The Sicilian Mafia's economic might, its alliances with politicians and indifferent law enforcement enabled it to grow so powerful that it threatened Italy's status as a modern nation. As Alexander Stille observed in Excellent Cadavers, the war against the Mafia in Sicily is not a local problem of law and order but the struggle for national unity and democracy in Italy. HBO's film based on Stille's book promised to tell that story, but, at barely ninety minutes, it ended up too compressed to offer more than a skim on the events he reported and analyzed so compellingly. Talk about missed opportunities: Instead of the Z-like political thriller it could have been, Cadavers is a rather routine policier.
In the eighties, Mafia killings accelerated as ambitious upstarts from Corleone (a real place, Godfather fans) challenged the Palermo old guard for the control of organized crime. The body count included not only Mafiosi but also police officials, magistrates and politicians, who came to be called, with fine Sicilian mordancy, excellent cadavers. Two magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, began to pursue the Mafia with unprecedented persistence. Their efforts culminated in the historic "maxi-trials," which resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of Sicily's most powerful gangsters.
The Mafia, of course, retaliated, assassinating Falcone in May 1992 and, two months later, Borsellino. The murders, however, ignited the simmering rage of Sicilians against the Mafia and the officials who protected it. The government was forced to respond, and the subsequent crackdown resulted in the arrest of numerous Mafiosi and connected businessmen and politicians.
Italians overwhelmingly regard Mafiosi as the other; they do not identify or empathize with criminals, nor do they feel that portrayals of organized crime in movies, television and other media tar them with the brush of criminality. Many Italian-Americans, however, regard the seemingly endless stream of Mafia movies and TV shows as a defamatory assault. In mid-January a coalition of seven Italian-American organizations issued a joint statement condemning The Sopranos for "defaming and assassinating the cultural character" of Americans of Italian descent.