Once Upon a Time in America. Directed by Sergio Leone (1984)
Sergio Leone’s cinematographic, the Italian director, producer and screenwriter, is associated with a particular film genre, the Western Spaghetti. Throughout his career, he gave us masterpieces that withstood the test of time. It is impossible to forget the trilogy A Fistful of Dollars (1964); For a Few Dollars More (1965); The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Many had in Leone an inspiration, as is the case of Quentin Tarantino.
Leone left an indelible mark in the seventh art’s realm. But it would be limiting to talk about Leone’s genius only through his Western Spaghetti. Without him we would never have Once Upon a Time in America, one of the most brilliant movies ever.
Only an exceptional individual could plot a story about the Jewish mafia, through a faithful portrait of its ascension and subsequent demise, entangled in such an intense emotional perspective that we almost succumb to this whirlwind of emotions. Because that is its core. Once Upon a Time in America is, above all, an elegy to love and friendship. But Leone also shows us how that ambition and attraction to power lead Man to carry out some of the most sordid acts…
The narrative portrays the friendship between four boys of Jewish descent, from a low social class, who have similar life experiences. This young gang begins by committing petty crimes in the streets of the Lower East Side, New York. But, as the years pass, these small felonies soon assume bigger dimensions. The plot takes place between the decades of 20 and 50, crossing the peak of the Prohibition.
But Leone’s main focus is the strong bond that joins two of the four friends and their path over nearly four decades, David Aaronson – “Noodles” (Robert De Niro) and Maximillian Bercouicz – “Max” (James Woods). And, precisely in the era when the Jewish Mafia acquires a powerful strength, this friendship ends up suffering devastating consequences in their lives. An odyssey from childhood until the period when the age of innocence is just a fading memory.
If, on the one hand, Max is the most rational and calculating one, Noodles is naiver and only wants the eternal love of his passion, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when Noodles (still a kid) “sneak peaks” Deborah (also a child) dancing ballet (Deborah knows she is being observed). It is not easy to describe the beauty and the tenderness of this scene. The time stops… the shy look of Noodles, contemplating his beloved Deborah, with her ethereal semblance, dancing with delicacy and candour… The expressions of both are so genuine that it is impossible to remain indifferent.
And this is the moment to introduce one of the most important elements of this narrative. Ennio Morricone, with his compositions, gives us moments of transcendental beauty. Throughout the movie, Leone shoots several sequences of images, in which Morricone’s music appears as “background”. The result is masterful! Moments of pure poetry that devour our soul!
Sergio Leone is remarkable in the way he shoots every second, every minute, with an outstanding expertise, worthy only of a minority. I dare say that this filmmaker reached perfection with Once Upon a Time in America.
With an absolutely extraordinary cast, Once Upon a Time in America is a work of art that deserves to be revisited umpteen times.