Once upon a Time in America (1984)


USA; Sergio Leone

Mature Audiences – Strong Bloody Violence; Sexual Violence; Sexuality; Language


In the turn-of-the-century New York, five young reckless hoodlums set out to form their own operation, attracting the wrath of a local underworld baron. The film evolves in nonlinear fashion, switching between time frames in an attempt to render the gang’s rise in the crimeworld and its sudden fall, from the blackmail of a local police sergeant to a shocking final revelation. In the 30s, the four (Robert de Niro, James Woods, James Hayden and William Forsythe) are already big players, but the first dysfunctions arise when Noodles (Robert de Niro) resists Max’s (James Woods) eager attempts to further widen the scope of their operations. Thirty years later, Noodles returns from a self-imposed exile to his native Lower East Side, aware that his brutality alienated him from everything he once cherished. But he is very far from expecting what he came back to…

At its heart a somber and melancholic evocation of a time and place, not to mention a certain type of cinema, Once upon a Time in America is so steeped in rich, lavish movie mythology that it is hard not to feel somehow welcomed into it with a comforting, effortless warmth. Despite the byzantine narrative structure and bursts of harrowing violence, this is an enthralling and utterly intoxicating classic gangster drama, subtly steering towards a bitter study in remorse and wasted love. There is indeed enough love wasted away, as the character set out to conquer the underworld. The film’s highpoint is, ostensibly, the second fragment, unravelling during the golden days of American Mafia, the Prohibition. It is, admittedly, a gorgeous, opulent centerpiece, tinged with dark, desperate energy, but also boasting staggering imagery. De Niro and James Woods are at once excellent and terrifying, slowly unpeeling their slick charisma to unveil a growing, vicious insanity.

But maybe more compelling and exhilarating is the childhood account of the gang. The Lower East Side as filmed by Leone provides a haunting, beautiful backdrop canvas, and this racy coming-of-age parable also plays as a prologue, every frame laden and magnified by the promises of richness to come and the threats of horrors to happen.

However, this whooping filmmaking edifice is hard to love. The viewers can’t really relate to any of the characters – except maybe Elisabeth McGovern’s Deborah, whose stoic response to the violence and hardships that life throws at her commands admiration – and consequently end up confined to the role of passive spectator… a role we all aspire to quit when the lights go off.


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