Once Upon a Time in America ★★★

Sergio Leone’s final film is a deeply nostalgic affair suspended in an atmosphere of autumnal reflection. It looks back at youth, friendship and love, and to a time and place, all of them left behind, except in the sad memories of an ageing gangster named Noodles (Robert De Niro). 

I’ve got mixed feelings about this film. Once Upon a Time in America is long and it’s slow, but it doesn’t drag so much as sag under the weight of its grandiose ambition and technical mastery. Some of the acting, and most of its script, can’t support its hulk. It’s conceptually impressive but it drowns in its own mawkishness. On the upside, the re-creation of prohibition-era New York is brilliantly done, with exemplary use of location and sets. And while I don’t particularly like it, I still have to applaud Morricone’s score for how effectively it coats the film in tears, slowing everything down and smothering it in a mood of maudlin regret. 

Where I struggle most is the way the score and Leone’s direction work to soften a lifetime of rape and violence. It’s a strange combination - sentimentality and crime - striking a mood of self-pity for heinous acts. I can buy Noodles as a tragic character worthy of redemption, but Leone presents him more as a martyr. In doing so he reaches for sentiment and skewed macho morality to try to get us to empathise with Noodles without shying away from his unforgivable brutality. Tarantino does this too, but the difference is he doesn’t wallow. He makes it cool and funny. Tarantino’s version is uncomfortable but it is pastiche, while Leone’s is deadly earnest. 

Leone seems to genuinely love Noodles. He tries to make him a tragic, moral character with an unfortunate compulsion to rape. His treatment of women in this film is appalling. And while that might be accurate for a gangster milieu it’s another thing again to sentimentalise it. Am I meant to feel sorry for Noodles because of everything he’s lost? I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even buy into his relationships - they were too mawkish, and when presented back through the regrets of an old man I found they just turned to mush. As a teenager I loved Once Upon a Time in America’s moody romanticism, but now that I’m older and more cynical I find it flabby and questionable. And yet, on many levels it remains a towering achievement. Hmmm.

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