Once Upon a Time in America by Sergio Leone is set as an expansive and hypnotic film experience, the story explores the ideas of time, memory, love, violence and betrayal. It is renowned for its beautiful cinematography, the detail of its three historical settings and its intricate, open-ended narration. Like most of Leone’s films, it was first released in the United States in a heavily edited version almost ninety minutes shorter than the version released in Europe. The short version also eliminates the flashback structure of the film, instead placing the scenes in chronological order.
Leone had turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather, but spent the ten years developing a new epic project, this time focusing on a quartet of New York City Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who had been friends since childhood. This work, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), was a project he had conceived before Once Upon a Time in the West, and it was for this very reason he turned down the offer to direct The Godfather. Based on the novel The Hoods by Harry Grey, starring Robert De Niro and James Woods, Once Upon a Time in America was a meditation on another aspect of popular American mythology, the role of greed and violence and their uneasy coexistence with the meaning of ethnicity and friendship, and like the earlier film, it was too long and stately for the studio to stomach. The studio cut (only for the American market) its four-hour running time drastically, losing much of the sense of the complex narrative. The recut version flopped and received much criticism.
De Niro, whose paternal great-grandparents emigrated from Italy (they were from Ferrazzano, in the region of Molise), was due to be bestowed with honorary Italian citizenship at the Venice Film Festival in September 2004. However, the Sons of Italy lodged a protest with Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, claiming that De Niro had damaged the image of Italians and Italian-Americans by constantly portraying them in criminal roles. Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani dismissed the objections and the ceremony was rescheduled to go forward in Rome in October. Controversy flared once again when De Niro failed to show for two media appearances in Italy that October. This fueled speculation that he had snubbed the country over the citizenship imbroglio. De Niro denied this, blaming the non-appearances on serious communication problems that weren’t handled properly on his end and stating:
Robert de Niro
The last thing I would want to do is offend anyone. I love Italy.
The citizenship was then conferred to De Niro on October 21, 2006, during the Rome Film Festival finale. Although De Niro is also part Irish, German, Dutch, French and English, he has stated that he identifies more with Italian side than with other parts.
Once Upon a Time in America (Italian title C’era una volta in America) (1984) is the last film by director Sergio Leone, and features Robert De Niro and James Woods as Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence in New York City’s world of organized crime.
The way the movie was cut is also the reason why a lot of Americans don’t think this movie is very special. There are three versions, but only the European version is how the director imagined it to be. He didn’t want his movie to be shown in chronological order (1910’s – 1930’s – 1960’s), but wanted to mix these three periods of time. The studio cut the movie in chronological order, loosing a lot of its originality and therefor getting a lot of bad critics. If you want to see this film the way Sergio Leone saw it, you have to make sure you get the director’s cut.
The second reason why this movie is so great is the music. Ennio Morricone, who is seen as the greatest writer of film music ever, did an excellent job. Together with the images, the music speaks for itself in this movie. From time to time there isn’t said a word, but the music and the images on their own tell the story. He understood perfectly what Sergio Leone wanted and composed most of the music even before the movie was shot.