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Friday, October 11, 2019

The Beginning of the Mafia Movie Genre in America

With Italy’s entry for the Oscars being Marco Bellocchio’s story of a Sicilian mafia informant, I thought I’d do a few posts about the genre of mafia films. 

Have you ever thought about what started the craze for mafia-themed movies in America? That was one of the questions I explored in my 2018 documentary, Return to Lucania.. When I sat down with actor/director Pif on two occasions, he told me so much about the differences in how the Sicilian mafia (Cosa Nostra) is portrayed in American films versus how it was in real life. 

Chatting with Pif at Lincoln Center's annual film series, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

In this clip from my documentary, Pif talks about how so many mafiosi ended up in America. I was initially asking him about the organized crime group Black Hand, which had a pretty strong presence here in Rochester, New York from 1910-ish through the 50s. They were known to level houses with bombs if they didn’t get their “protection money” and in one case, killed and dismembered a 33-year-old Sicilian man named Francesco Manzello who was suspected but not proven to have been involved in the death of one of their family members. It’s a fascinating story. Google “Barrel Murder” Rochester, New York or click here to read an in-depth article, but beware, the images are very graphic. 

Pif said that he didn’t have first hand knowledge on the Black Hand in America but talked about the Mussolini years and how the dictator claimed to have solved the problem of Italy’s mafia when in reality, he just shipped many of its members off to America. 

Then I take a look at the very first known American film of the mafia genre whose star was from my ancestral region of #Basilicata, which I had mentioned at the beginning of the film, was the location for several of Luigi Di Gianni’s early documentaries. 

Here is the copy from the script…
“When we think of who immigrated to the United States, it was a lot of people who were very desperate and that would have included certain criminals. A little later on from the period you're talking about when Mussolini was in power, Mussolini set out to defeat the mafia under Prefect (Cesare) Mori. At that time, members of the Sicilian mafia claimed they were going to leave saying that they were anti-fascist but that wasn't really the truth. Then Mussolini declared that the mafia had been defeated for once and for all.”
The rise of Nickelodeon age of cinema in 1900 and the packed movie houses that featured these short films, proved that audiences wanted to see dramatic stories. With the success of the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, it was just a matter of time before a story about organized crime made it to the big screen. 
In 1906, The Black Hand, which stars Robert Vignola, who was born in Lucania, not far from the scenes of Luigi Di Gianni’s documentary films, tells the story of an Italian butcher whose daughter is being held for ransom. Set in New York City, the 10-minute film is known to be the first of the mafia genre.

Click here to watch my documentary, Return to Lucania.

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