Book review

Gangster Priest by Robert Casillo
U of Toronto Press, 590 pages, $39.95 (paper)
(Canscene)) — Who among film lovers wasn’t happy that Martin Scorsese won an Oscar in his own right last February?

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The Academy which had denied Hitchcock and Chaplin Oscars in their own right finally awarded them honorary statuettes, but it wasn’t the same and to millions smacked of an afterthought. We began to think Scorsese was headed for the same treatment.

A few weeks prior to the ceremony, I received Gangster Priest for review. It’s a long book, thick with source notes, by Robert Casillo PhD, professor of English at the University of Miami whose previous books include studies of Italian fascism and Italian stereotypes.

Casillo makes it quite clear that in Gangster Priest his spotlight is on Scorsese’s Italian-American films: the documentary Italianamerican and five features: Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino. (The Departed, which gave Scorsese another Academy nod this year wouldn’t have qualified since it’s about Irish American gangsters.)

Background offers social context
Martin Scorsese, as a third generation Italian American who, though a lapsed Catholic, still feels compelled in his storytelling to include many images and thoughts that relate directly to an observant Catholic boyhood. With his passion for the low-life denizens of mean streets to the ritzy creatures of Las Vegas he has created a unique body of work and the contextual nature of Casillo’s book gives us new derstanding of this ouevre.

Casillo makes the point that succeeding generations of the Italian diaspora in the U.S differ in attitudes and mores, which reminds me of a remark that Paul Sorvino once made at the Toronto International Film Festival that Italian Canadians differ greatly from their counterparts in the U.S. diaspora.

The films examined in depth

Casillo allots the six films their own chapters examining each in detail from the hoodlumism of he early films to the search for criminal refinement in Casino. In fact, reading the book sent me back to Who’s That Knocking t My Door which I learned from the very good bonus material on the DVD began as a student exercise and took six years to complete.

Other films from Boxcar Bertha to the chilling Taxi Driver to the evocative Age of Innocence, the flamboyant Gangs of New York and the riveting Aviator are duly mentioned but Casillo’s focus in Gangster Priest reminds us of films that in spite of their “social comment” remain a thrilling testimony to Scorsese’s directorial genius in a specific genre. Beside these works, overrated concoctions like the overrated Sopranos fade to insignificance.,

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