Charting the journey of four friends over five decades. Sergio Leone’s masterpiece has found itself eclipsed in recent years by the equally stunning Goodfellas and The Godfather. But this is a film that deserves an equal amount of praise and attention as it wraps the viewer in a truly epic tale of friendship, betrayal and revenge. While equally echoing the volatility of the journey from teenager to adult in a landscape of economic depression and crime.
Once Upon a Time in America is as relentless and emotionally powerful as it is gritty. In a depiction of poverty and violence that hums with a realism rarely seen in depression crime dramas. Leone opens the film with four young friends growing up in 1930s New York. All of the street kids understanding the hidden rules of the New York backstreets they inhabit. Each one both thriving and surviving on a mix of low-level crime and violence. At the same time, protecting each other from the dangers of the adult world that swirls around them.
These are the children of immigrants, their lives caught in a mix of self-preservation and social isolation as one immigrant group outstrips the other in terms of position and class. Ultimately creating a group of young people who understand that power and success are achieved through notoriety and status. While equally having little understanding of the social costs of their actions.
As they grow into young adults, Sergio Leone beautifully encapsulates the journey from mouthy teenager to adult criminal alongside a sense of invulnerability. The scale and nature of their actions hidden under the brief notoriety and power their criminal behaviour brings. But power eventually fades, and the petals that brought colour and life eventually fall. Leaving nothing but old age and wisdom at the journey taken and choices made.
Despite the overarching darkness of the film, Once Upon a Time in America transcends the boundaries of the gangster movie. Delivering a beautifully framed examination of the choices made in youth and their eventual translation into adult life. At the same time, embedding this within a commentary on the shroud of invincibility we wear in our younger years. And the harsh reality of lifting this shroud as we enter our later adult life.
Director: Sergio Leone