By Julen Givelber
There is a great fascination with the Mafia in all cultures across the world, but no two countries are more associated with the Mafia in cinema than Italy and the United States. The Mafia originated in Southern Italy but spread to the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Eventually, the topic of the Italian Mafia became a staple of American cinema, largely beginning with one of the most famous films of all time, The Godfather. This paper will examine the similarities and differences between the representation of the Italian Mafia in American and Italian cinema. Historically, Italian cinema has approached the Mafia from a realistic perspective, highlighting the atrocities committed by the organization while focusing on those who actively fight against these criminals. Conversely, American cinema has a romantic view of the Mafia, often focusing on the relationships between rival Mafia families. In this analysis, The Godfather represents American cinema while Il Traditore represents Italian cinema. Both movies include influential members of the mafia who are essential to the respective storylines. In order to achieve a diligent exploration, this paper will closely examine these two characters in order to draw attention to the various manners in which the Mafia can be interpreted.
The Godfather, released in 1972, is considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time and focuses on the dealings of the Corleone family in New York. The movie begins with a focus on Michael Corleone, a veteran of the US army, who is the son of Don Vito Corleone. Despite his upbringing, he is determined to remain separate from his family’s business. However, after the shooting of his father, he realizes that it is his time to become involved in the Mafia in order to avenge his father. Don Vito Corleone is gunned down by a drug baron who is backed by the Tattaglia crime family. He survives, but is in critical enough condition that it becomes necessary for his other son, Sonny, to take control. An open war ensues between the 5 families until Vito is able to broker a temporary peace. However, Vito knew that the peace would not last and advised Michael to be aware of traitors. Eventually, Vito dies of a heart attack and it is left up to his son, Michael, to kill the rest of their enemies. The movie ends with the family expanding to Las Vegas and with Michael as the full-fledged leader of the Corleone family.
Il Traditore is a 2020 film documenting the life of Tommaso Buscetta, a real life historical figure who was involved in the Sicilian Mafia. He was a man who had been involved with the Sicilian Mafia since the age of 16 but eventually turned informant in the 1980s when he sensed the war between families was becoming too intense. He fled with his third wife and young children to Brazil before being arrested by Brazilian authorities. He was then tortured in a Brazilian prison for a number of months before being extradited back to Italy. There, he met Giovanni Falcone, a judge dedicated to bringing down the Mafia. He and Falcone developed a strong relationship and Buscetta confessed everything to him. Naturally, Mafia members began to hold disdainful sentiments towards Buscetta, eventually forcing him to go into witness protection in the United States. However, the murder of Falcone compelled him to return to Italy and testify against more people involved in the Mafia. After assisting the Italian government in weakening Cosa Nostra, he died of natural causes in the United States on April 2, 2000.
Without question, the two most comparable characters in each of these films are Vito Corleone and Tomaso Buscetta. Vito is quite a dark man for much of the film, untouchable and ruthless. He is always dressed immaculately, typically wearing a dark suit with his hair perfectly slicked back and his mustache trimmed. His expression is serious and he rarely smiles. Later on in the movie when his health declines, the tender side of Vito is revealed while he spends time with his grandson right before he dies. However, he is decidedly ruthless for the majority of the film. While Italian and American media depiction of the Mafia has historically been considered different, examining the two movies shows that there are many similarities in the way that Vito and Buscetta are portrayed. Tomaso is a strong, dark figure who always seems to be measured and in control. He rarely smiles and is always dressed in a nice suit demonstrating that he is a man of stature. Whether with a mustache on his face or clean shaven, he is always well groomed and often shields his eyes with designer sunglasses. Obscuring his eyes partially reflects an attempt to protect his identity, but also adds to his mystique and aura of power.
There are a couple scenes in each of these movies that warrant further analysis as they perfectly demonstrate the character of these men. For instance, the opening scene of The Godfather immediately calls attention to Vito’s power. A man is seated across from him asking the don for a favor but Vito never shows any emotion, petting his cat in a distracted manner for the entirety of the interaction. The wooden table between him and the person across from him demonstrates the power difference between the two. When Vito decides to speak, he does so in a slow and deliberate manner, choosing his words carefully. He does not do this out of respect for the man across from him, but rather to show that he carefully thinks out every word emanating from his lips. While the man across from him begs that his request be met, Vito’s body language is relaxed and he does not leave the comfort of his brown leather chair. The chair seems more like a throne with Vito in it, highlighting his superior position in his world.
Buscetta is depicted in a slightly different manner than Vito, given that he is not a don and he is disaffiliated from the Mafia for most of the film. Some of the most telling scenes with Buscetta involve him and Judge Falcone. During Buscetta’s second interaction with Falcone, the judge asks him why he has not taken more responsibility in the Mafia and Buscetta replies that he prioritized women over power. He is calm and well dressed, but smiles more during this interaction, obviously enjoying the judge’s company. His conversations with Falcone mark the beginning of his development into a better person and give the audience a deeper understanding of his character. His rejection of command represents a stark contrast between him and Vito. In the eyes of Falcone, Buscetta is a natural leader and Buscetta himself admits that when he talks, others listen. An important aspect of Buscetta’s character is that he rejected command while part of Cosa Nostra in order to enjoy the spoils of his status. With that being said, Buscetta is similar to Vito for much of the movie. He does not smile often and always seems as though he is in control in any interaction. He also emphasizes his principles and honor frequently during the court proceedings as he is hounded by the mafia men he has exposed. This is similar to The Godfather’s code of omertà and emphasis on family.
Additionally, many comparisons can be made between the character arcs of the two men. Of the two characters, Buscetta goes through the greatest character transformation. In the beginning of the film, he is not a good man and seems to have little redeemable qualities. He abandons his two older sons in Italy when he decides to flee for Brazil and this fateful decision leads to their deaths. Without his protection, they are slain by rival mafiosi. He becomes a much more redeemable character later on in the film as he develops a rapport with Falcone and fights to protect his wife and young children in witness protection. The movie is largely a courtroom movie with an emphasis on truth and survival. Vito on the other hand quickly goes from powerful leader, to a respected, yet unwell, elderly man. After Vito is shot, much of the movie is focused on his family avenging this wrong. However, glimpses of Vito’s true power emerge again when he calls a meeting with the 5 families in order to determine who killed his son, Sonny. Vito easily manipulates all the other men and quickly determines who is at fault for Sonny’s death. His clever and serious nature never leaves him, even as he becomes more feeble.
In comparison with existing literature, Il Traditore is not a traditional Italian representation of the Mafia. The general notion among academics who study Mafia in cinema is that Italian directors are focused on demonstrating the effect of the Mafia on Italian politics, while also examining the origins of the Mafia and their effect on civilians. American Mafia movies, on the other hand, tend to romanticize mafiosi, with the most famous example being The Godfather. American mobsters are typically presented as dapper and handsome while Italian mafiosi are seen as excessively violent, dull, and unhealthy (Renga). This does not line up with the representation of Tommaso Buscetta in Il Traditore as he is portrayed as a handsome man who is well-dressed and refined. He is respected by most and is considered to be intelligent by all. Buscetta is an informant for much of the film so he does fit the role of bringing the Mafia down that is seen in most Italian films. However, his friends and mixed motives for turning informant make him less of a traditional hero. In comparison to the theories of academics who study media representation of the Mafia, Buscetta does not represent a traditional mafiosi.
One potential explanation for the difference in representation of the Mafia among American and Italian directors is that the Mafia is more of a myth for Americans while for Italians, the Mafia actually affects everyday lives, especially in Southern Italy. The Italian Mafia is composed of Cosa Nostra in Sicily, Camorra in Campania, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia. The Camorra in Naples are quite active, and kill people, mostly other clan members, often. The power of the Mafia is based on their ability to create terror among everyday citizens (Renga). That is why the focus in most Italian cinema is on a hero attempting to take down the Mafia rather than an active member of the Mafia (Babini). This trend remains true in Il Traditore as Buscetta was an influential figure in weakening the Mafia, exposing 366 members. While it could be argued that he turned informant to save his own skin, he was effective in helping the Italian government.
In the end, it is likely true that Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather director) romanticized the Mafia more than Marco Bellochio (Il Traditore director) did, but it would be false to say that Italian cinema does not depict the Mafia with a bit of glorification. Buscetta spent most of his time in nice houses with beautiful women, wearing perfectly tailored suits for the entirety of the movie. Each of the characters, even the bad ones, seem attractive in some sense of the word. Also, there are depictions of excessive violence in Il Traditore similar to those in The Godfather. The differences in the two cinema styles are subtler than most experts believe, but Italian cinema does tend to focus more on the law fighting against the Mafia rather than solely the interactions between Mafia families as in American film. The subject of the Mafia will always be one that fascinates audiences around the world regardless of how it is interpreted. American directors tend to depict the Mafia as the main characters in their movies while most Italian directors, especially those from the South, tend to make films that denounce the Mafia in every way.
Hope, William, and Luana Babini. “The Mafia: New Cinematic Perspectives.” Italian Cinema: New Directions, P. Lang, Oxford, 2005, pp. 229–249.
Renga, Dana. “Introduction.” Unfinished Business: Screening the Italian Mafia in the New Millennium, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2013.
Renga, Dana. “The Corleones at Home and Abroad.” Mafia Movies: A Reader, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2019.