Directed by Sergio Leone
“Once Upon a Time in America” is definitely an experience. At nearly four hours long (just ten minutes shy) it would be hard for the film to be anything else. Not only that, but it was the last film from one of the greatest film directors of all time, Sergio Leone. And by the end of the film it’s quite clear that other filmmakers should be so lucky as to go out on as high a note as Leone did.
“Once Upon a Time in America” is a perfect companion piece to “The Godfather”. Like Coppola’s landmark film series, Leone’s “America” concerns itself with nearly the entire life of a mobster. Jewish, not Italian, but most certainly a mobster nonetheless. If ‘The Godfather” is known for its rich atmosphere and dense almost novelistic narrative, than “Once Upon a Time in America” is sort of the opposite. Make no mistake, it has these aspects too (though not as effectively) but if “The Godfather” is a fantastic novel, than “Once Upon a Time in America” is a poetic piece of art. It is a much more stylized and romantic look at what being a gangster is like. For instance, since the film is nearly four hours long, don’t be surprised in having to watch a 12-year-old girl dance for 7 uninterrupted minutes. The film throws the idea of pacing out the window and invents its own sense of progression. It’s also one of the most violent and sexually charged (sometimes uncomfortably so) films I have ever seen. Like the 12-year-old dancer, “America” is constantly floating right in front of our faces, and with sudden bursts of energy, explodes in moments of pure violence and sexual tension, before once again settling down and continuing to gracefully carry on as if the outbursts never happened. And it still somehow manages to never miss a step.
Robert De Niro gives an amazingly thorough performance as the main character of the film. It’s been quite a while since I saw “The Godfather II” but I feel fairly confident in saying that his performance here rivals that one. Even more surprisingly is that James Woods almost steals the show as his partner in crime, Max. After watching this film, it’s kind of sad to see that Woods never reached these same heights again, as he clearly had the talent to do so. If you look closely, you’ll even notice a 12-year-old Jennifer Connelly, and if you look even more closely, you’ll see her sans clothing. (Remember how I mentioned that the sexuality in this film is slightly uncomfortable? That would be the reason… well, actually that’s only one of the reasons.)
I know that a lot of people are going to have a hard time sitting through this film. If the length of the piece doesn’t deter them, than certainly the strong levels of violence and sex might. And if they manage to make it through all of those things, they’ll come face to face with a final thirty minutes that doesn’t quite make any type of sense. (Though the very final image of the film sort of makes up for the lack of understanding.) But like I mentioned earlier, “Once Upon a Time in America” isn’t a portrait of the American Gangster, it’s a piece of epic poetry. And beneath all the ugliness of the subject matter is a truly beautiful film with a very heartfelt centre. But as far as my opinion goes, it doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as “The Godfather”. Because it deserves better.