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Italian Mafia

Christmas With The Italian Mafia

Christmas around the world is a time for peace and harmony, but this is not always the case. Many countries have continued violence and the story is no different in Europe. Police in Italy have arrested suspects of Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, in the lead up to the festive period confirming what many already knew; the mafia does not take Christmas off.

Prosecutors have confirmed that the suspects had started collecting a “Christmas pizzo” from shopkeepers and bar owners, or money that they are made to pay to avoid an incident that could cause damage, injury, or even death – including mysterious fires, smashed windows or even a bomb underneath their vehicles. It appears that mafia bosses look at how they can increase their business during the holiday season with strategies created and put in place for the upcoming year, along with crimes and murders being commissioned.

Marcello Bruzzese, 51, was the brother of a former mafia member who had turned supergrass. On Christmas Day in 2018 he was fatally shot, allegedly on the orders of a section of the Calabrian mafia, the “Ndrangheta”, who are one of the most powerful mafias at the moment. Police reports state that the balaclava clad murderers waited near Bruzzese’s flat in Pesaro – located in the Italian region of Le Marche – and shot him at least 20 times.

The growing list of men that the mafia has murdered over the Christmas period is full of reasoning with the killing of an organization’s enemy, police officer, or someone that is loathed by the group as a sort of Christmas “gift”.

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Palermo’s Ucciardone prison’s penitentiary police agent, Giuseppe Montalto, was killed on 23 December 1995 by a mafia hit man in front of his wife and young family. Ucciardone prison has imprisoned many top mafia bosses and an investigation concluded that Montalto’s murder was a Christmas present for those locked up under Italy’s “hard prison” rule, which is type of solitary confinement.

Montalto had blocked a message from a mafia boss just months earlier that he had automatically passed onto his employers. In retaliation his killing was ordered to “give a Christmas gift to friends who were in prison,” according to former Mafioso Francesco Milazzo.

However, the Christmas period can also be seen as a time to resolve disputes with other mafia members or clans. In November, Catania district attorneys released specific files regarding an investigation in which Francesco Squillaci – another former Mafioso turned supergrass – admitted that following the revelation that the Ercolano and Santapaola clans had become embroiled in a war which had started after a rival boss was accidentally murdered during a Christmas meal in a cell in the Bicocca prison.

Former anti-mafia prosecutor Sergio Lari, who worked as head of the Palermo anti-mafia directorate for over ten years claimed:

“It is not rare for mafiosi, tied to tradition as they are, to spend Christmas with fellow mafia brothers. The most powerful Palermo godfathers used to do it every year. They’d agree to meet in the home of a boss to exchange holiday greetings and to plan the new year’s criminal strategies.”

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During the 1991 Christmas dinner, Totò Riina – head of the Sicilian mafia and thought of as one of the most cold blooded bosses in Mafia history – decided that it was time to start a war on “the mafia’s enemies”.

“In that precise moment the mafia planned the assassination of the legendary anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino,” said Lari.

Apart from murder, gifts, and planning, Christmas also has another “special” meaning to Mafiosi: cash. With spending increasing across the world during the run up to the festive period, the mafia increases their demands for protection money – or pizzo – during the period. Salvo Caradonna is a lawyer for the Addiopizzo association (“goodbye protection money”) and confirmed:

“Paying the pizzo at Christmas has now become standard criminal practice in Palermo. At Christmas, many business owners take in more money, and Cosa Nostra, beginning in late November, customarily visits shop owners to remind them that Christmas is around the corner and they’ll soon have to “set right” their payments. This is why Addiopizzo launches several campaigns in December, to sensitize the shop owners to rebel.”

While most Christmas stories have happy endings, it is not always the case for mafia tales and the mobsters. In 2015 officers from the Carabinieri raided the home of the Palermo boss Mariano Marchese on Christmas evening. Dressed as Santa, Marchese was in the middle of giving his grandchildren gifts and somehow managed to avoid being captured after heading out the back door. However, after being on the run for several months he was finally arrested in March 2016 but died a few weeks later in prison.

Small Movie Theatre

The Irishman: A Near-Perfect Gangster Epic

Director Martin Scorsese has implored audiences not to watch his latest crime epic, The Irishman, on a smartphone. And while many viewers of the director’s latest film are likely to ignore this advice, Scorsese’s request is well-founded. At three-and-a-half hours long, The Irishman can be difficult to watch in one sitting — but the cinematic experience on offer is best enjoyed on a big screen, whether it’s projected on a movie screen or displayed on a large TV. Scorsese has drawn criticism lately for his comments about Marvel movies, which he’s characterized as “not cinema,” comparing them to amusement park rides, entertaining and full of spectacle but lacking in substance. And while his comments have angered fans of the immensely profitable superhero genre, they also speak to Scorecese’s understanding of the potential of cinema as an art form and its ability to speak to audiences on a deep, human level. Scorsese’s commitment to artistry is evident not only by his extensive catalogue of critically-acclaimed crime dramas, but by his career-defining work on his latest epic.

Spoilers for The Irishman follow.

The Irishman is based on the true story of Frank Sheeran, a hitman for the mafia who claimed to be responsible for killing the famous Jimmy Hoffa, a labor union activist who disappeared in 1975. While the nature of Hoffa’s disappearance in real life remains a mystery, Sheeran’s account is perhaps the most compelling explanation, as details of his story are corroborated by evidence, though most if not all of the other witnesses to the killing were dead by the time Sheeran confessed to author Charles Brandt shortly before his death. Brandt’s book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” forms the basis of Scorsese’s film, and the director took great lengths to ensure that the movie closely follows Sheeran’s recollection of events. Whether or not you believe that the film accurately portrays historical events, including details surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, depends on whether you trust Sheeran’s retelling of the events of his life and Brandt’s memorialization thereof.

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Regardless of its questionable historical accuracy, though, The Irishman shines as a meditation on the reality of aging, death, and how the decisions a person makes come to define the stories of their lives, for better or for worse. Sheeran is not a particularly sympathetic character he expresses no remorse for his many killings, some directed by the military and others by the mob — but the film succeeds in emotionally engaging the viewer with the protagonist nonetheless. This is in no small part thanks to Robert De Niro’s excellent portrayal of Frank Sheeran’s life over a period of decades, as the legendary actor imbues his character with an emotional depth and complexity rivaled by few other performances in recent memory. 

Scorsese pioneered the widespread use of expensive de-aging technology to allow the 76-year-old De Niro to portray a character several decades younger, and the implementation has received a mixed reception. While the effect is not entirely convincing and can at times even be a little distracting, it works for the most part, though it is at times clear that the aging principal cast struggle to mimic the vibrancy of men half their age throughout the film. It’s easy to look past this minor deficiency, however, and as the film’s narrative largely explores the concepts of aging and death, the at times geriatric performances of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci fit the film’s narrative framing of an elderly man sitting alone in a nursing home reminiscing about his past.

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Irrespective of how you feel about the visual effects, the actors’ performances are phenomenal, and add to the remarkable depth of the film’s writing and direction. Ultimately, while most of the events of the film revolve around Sheeran’s participation in the mob and his relationships with his mentor Russell Bufalino and the egotistical, hot-headed Jimmy Hoffa, I would argue the real point of the film is its examination of the importance of family life. Sheeran had four children, and while these characters don’t prominently factor into the events of the narrative, the emotional weight carried by Sheeran’s neglect of his children is immense. Sheeran’s daughters must grapple with the violent reality of his lifestyle and profession throughout the picture, mostly in the background, resulting in an ongoing rejection of their father that culminates in their disowning of him as he becomes an elderly man. After nearly all of the people close to Sheeran die, only his family remain, but his efforts to reconnect with his daughters fail as they have effectively disowned him. By the end of the film, Sheeran is left in a nursing home, talking about his daughters with a nurse who barely pays attention to his stories. Ultimately, the film plays a trick on the audience; while it seems at first to be about the mob, the Teamsters union, and the larger-than-life Jimmy Hoffa, it reveals itself by its conclusion to in actuality be about the inevitability of death and the importance of family ties.

This level of depth and thematic complexity is what has led The Irishman to receive near-universal critical acclaim. Though it premiered as a limited theatrical release, the movie is now available exclusively on Netflix, which incidentally turned out to be the only company willing to fund Scorsese’s experimental epic. Critics are speculating that The Irishman could sweep the Oscars, and many have speculated the film is a strong contender for Best Picture. If you’re willing to set aside the three-and-a-half hours necessary to engage in Scorsese’s latest film, you’ll be rewarded with a work of nearly-unparalleled emotional weight and tragedy.