Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
Director: Sergio Leone
Running Time: 229 mins
Once Upon A Time In America is an American/Italian film about the life of a Jewish man who rose to prominence as a gangster during the era of Prohibition who returns to the place he first built his life over three decades later, and begins to retread the steps and regrets of his life back then.
This may be a gangster movie, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most beautiful and elegant films I’ve ever seen. Directed with pure class by Sergio Leone, and featuring a whole host of incredible performances, Once Upon A Time In America is a truly poetic look at both the world of gangsters and the themes of friendship, betrayal and regret.
As the film starts, you may be inclined to compare it to the likes of The Godfather and Goodfellas. Whilst that’s a perfectly fair comparison given the gangster focus and often graphic violence, the fact of the matter is that this film is almost nothing like the hard gangster movies you’ve come to know over the years.
When it needs to be graphic in its portrayal of violence or sex, it goes all out, but that’s done only in order to create a greater emotional effect on you, because the main focus of the film is actually about the nature of human beings, whether it be when living in a difficult environment or looking back on the past, meaning that you have to look at this in a different way to what Scorsese and Coppola have made the norm.
This is the final film from Sergio Leone, director of The Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, but what really stands out to me about this film above all his others is how understated it is. Because the main focus isn’t the various machinations we see our main characters go through as they rise through the ranks in the gangster world, the film has quite a sombre tone throughout, but it’s portrayed in an incredibly beautiful way.
Paced to near perfection, the film delves in and out of the main character’s life at different points, ranging from his childhood growing up amidst violence and poverty to his relationship with his friends during the Prohibition era, and as we watch it all unfold from his perspective at an older age in 1968, the power of the main character’s sense of regret when looking back at what other gangster films portray as a great achievement, is all the more strong.
In conjunction with Ennio Morricone’s haunting yet wonderfully elegant score, every single moment of this film is more emotionally fascinating than the last. Its non-linear structure means that the changes in the characters’ relationships between different eras are all the more stark, and therefore make for greater tension and drama, whilst the quietest and calmest moments amidst a sea of crime and violence are incredibly powerful to witness.
Robert De Niro’s performance at the centre of it all is amazing, with the charisma and conviction that a leading light in the gangster world would have, but also with a clear emotional conscience that helps us to bring his actions during that time into question, and look at them in a light we don’t often see from Hollywood. Alongside De Niro, the likes of James Woods and Elizabeth McGovern make equally compelling supporting characters, and it’s their continued importance as a part of his story throughout the film that gives it the sense of a true sprawling epic.
Overall, I was entranced by Once Upon A Time In America. A sombre and bittersweet look into the gangster world, its poetic and incredibly beautiful nature makes it a truly wonderful and enthralling watch at every moment. Its story provides a fascinating look deeper into gangster characters and relationships than you’ve ever seen before, and with exceptional directing, writing, scoring and performances, it all makes for a thoroughly brilliant way to spend almost four hours of your time, which is why I’m giving it an 8.7.