The Italian Mafia: Sorting Fact From Fiction

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Just when we thought American Mafia movies had seen their heyday, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman bursts onto the scene. Featuring violent shootouts, black-clad mobsters and hard-hitting one-liners, Hollywood’s latest mob hit bears all the trademarks of the iconic Mafia movie. For people nostalgic for the gangster film’s Golden Age, The Irishman couldn’t have come sooner. Yet for many Italians, its release is decidedly contentious.

Italian-American mobster movies glamorise the lives of merciless Mafia bosses. Almost all their gangster protagonists are of Italian origin, and the organised crime groups they work for often stem from Italian mafias. Take Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, for example: the Corleone family roots lie with Cosa Nostra, once Italy’s most feared organised crime group, while protagonist Vito Corleone is based on Calabrian gangster Frank Costello.

Berlusconi recently swore he would “throttle” all those whose series or books on the Mafia have given Italy “a bad name in the world.” Yet wouldn’t he do better to question the authenticity of their narratives? Indeed, for all the myths that enshroud Italian organised crime, the operations of the country’s most powerful Mafias – Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra – are far more inconspicuous than Western series and movies let on. 

“The operations of the country’s most powerful mafias are far more conspicuous than Western series and movies let on”

Firstly, far fewer murders are committed by Italian organised crime groups than popular culture suggests. While a total of 60 characters are killed in The Godfather trilogy alone, experts maintain that Italian Mafiosi rarely kill at all, for bodies raise questions and questions start investigations. According to legendary anti-Mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, they instead exercise power by virtue of corruption: “it is more convenient to give 10 or 15 million euros to a public service officer than to kill him, because killing him would make a lot of noise.” This is especially the case for ‘Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful Mafia as of late which makes an estimated 90 billion euros from cocaine smuggling per year. 

It is hence no wonder that Italian Mafiosi rarely leave corpses in unassuming places in the way that Henry Hill and his friends left Carbone’s ice-picked body hanging among turkeys in Goodfellas. Investigations suggest that gang members dispose of bodies by dissolving them in acid; this was reportedly how they dealt with the body of twelve-year-old Giuseppe di Matteo after kidnapping and strangling him in 1993.

“Italian Mafiosi rarely leave corpses in unassuming places like Henry Hill and his friends in Goodfellas”

This isn’t to say, however, that Italian Mafiosi don’t take brutal measures to instil fear in people. Just as Tom Hagen threatens movie director Johnny Fontane by placing the severed head of his stallion on his bed in The Godfather, the ‘Ndrangheta sent oil tycoon John Paul Getty his grandson’s ear in the post in 1973 because he refused to pay the 16-year-old boy’s kidnapping ransom.

There are, of course, more discreet ways in which Mafiosis’ ominous behaviour manifests itself. Rumours have long been circling about the clans’ initiation rituals. Are they as sinister as Christopher’s ceremony in The Sopranos, during which blood was drawn from his finger and a picture of St. Peter was placed in his hands? Accounts produced in the 19th century would suggest so; local trade unionist Verro said his blood was smeared onto the image of a skull during his initiation. Though the ritual has since been modified, it remains a menacing affair. Footage from 2014 of an ‘Ndrangheta initiation ceremony showed initiates swearing an oath in front of a gun and a suicide pill, which they vowed to use should they ever be caught.

One myth at the heart of the Italian Mafia is that members never break the Omertà. This is the code of silence that Mafiosi pledge to keep during initiations, succinctly summarised in Goodfellas as follows: “never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” It was strictly upheld until the 1990s when legislation made it common practice for Mafiosi to turn their backs on their clans in exchange for reduced prison sentences and other concessions.

“Legislation made it common practice for Mafiosi to turn their backs on their clans”

Another falsehood perpetually propagated in popular culture is that the Vatican is embroiled in Mafia affairs. Their collusion was most recently alluded to in Suburra: Blood on Rome, a fictional Netflix series that exposes power clashes and corruption in Italy. Pope Francis ceased all speculation of this when he excommunicated the Mafia in 2014 and called the ‘Ndrangheta “the adoration of evil.”

The notion that Mafiosi live in luxurious conditions is also unfounded. The homes of Tony Montana in Scarface and Henry Hill in Goodfellas would, in reality, be far too ostentatious for criminals affiliated with the Mafia, who instead seek refuge in mountain caves or bunkers. Recent investigations have discovered large underground networks in Naples accessed by Mafiosi via sliding staircases and pizza ovens. 

“The notion that Mafiosi live in luxurious conditions is unfounded”

The representations of Mafia gangs in popular culture may be far-fetched and disingenuous. However, fear is mounting that ‘Ndrangheta, Cosa Nostra and Camorra criminals have begun to emulate Hollywood gangsters in their operations and lifestyles. As unlikely as it may sound, movies’ harmless shootouts and corpse-lined streets may one day be more than mere Hollywood fantasies. 

Image by Niko Tavernise via Netflix

One thought on “The Italian Mafia: Sorting Fact From Fiction

  • Now it’s time to sort fact from fiction with this article. First of all, nobody knows for sure that Vito Corleone is based on Frank Costello. I’ve heard that they took a number of mob bosses and combined them into one character. Second of all, far more, rather than far fewer, people have been killed by Italian organized crime groups than popular culture suggests. Each one of the major criminal organizations in Italy have had gang wars where hundreds have died. And even today the Ndrangheta and Camorra still whack out its members like crazy, not so much with Cosa Nostra. And while it is true that today they focus more on infiltrating the State rather than attacking it with guns and bombs, using bribery and colluding with politicians and businessmen instead, this wasn’t always the case. And Henry Hill’s gangster days were in the 1950s through the 70s, in those days the Mafia both in America and Italy were leaving bodies everywhere as well as dissolving them in acid. Third of all, it’s common knowledge these days, and has been for a long time, that mobsters regularly break Omerta. Makes no sense to even point that out. Members of the various crime syndicates over there have been talking to authorities probably since they first came into existence, even before tough anti-Mafia legislation. Forth of all, just because the Pope says that the Vatican isn’t in cahoots with the mob, does that make it so? That’s what he’s supposed to say! Of course he’d deny it, and there’s plenty of historical evidence of the Vatican working with organized crime. Fifth of all, the whether or not mobsters live in luxurious conditions varies from mobster to mobster. Just like the gangsters living in caves and bunkers there are other examples of mansions and large houses. Sixth of all and finally, the notion that the mob are emulating Hollywood mobsters and gangsters from Italian crime shows is total bullshit. The mob was here long before Hollywood, long before television, long before VHS and DVD and movie theaters. That’s not to say that they’re not enamored with films and series about their lifestyles and take some things from it, but to somehow suggest that they are totally copying it as if they weren’t already doing these things long before it came about is nothing short of absurd.

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