The best movies about the mafia come from Italy itself. We have made a list of 12 Italian mafia films to get the best impression of Italian criminal organisations.

Organised crime

Mafia, a Sicilian word, originated in Sicily, Italy. The word now stands worldwide for an organised criminal organisation. A few characteristics that distinguish the mafia however from other criminal organisations are for example the use of extreme violence, the code of silence (omertà) and initiation rituals and foundation myths.

4 Best Italian mafia books
Night time surveillance by the Carabinieri, the Italian military police © Original italystart.com Photo

Three mafia’s

As the Sicilian mafia were not enough, Italy has at least two other indigenous criminal organisations that are world-famous. One is the Camorra, based in and around Naples. The other is considered to be the world’s most feared mafia: the ‘Ndrangheta, based in Calabria (Southern Italy). 

Anti-mafia

Just a preface: movies about the mafia are interesting, but without pretending to be saintly, I’d like to say however that the mafia in reallife has only grabbed misery. This list is therefore mostly a combination of anti-mafia films and violent films, where the violence in turn is an indictment of the practices of the mafia.

RELATED: read the list of best Italian films of all time, including three Italian crime series, such as The Octopus.

Italian mafia films
Franco Nero captured twice in Rome © Original italystart.com Photo

No American films?

The Godfather is, of course, the most iconic of the genre. It is clear that famous mafia films also come from the United States. But the GoodFellas, the Untouchables and so on don’t need to be listed as they are so well-known. 

1. In the Name of the Law (1949)

First post war Italian mafia film

  • Original title: In nome della legge
  • Director: Pietro Germi
  • Leading Actor: Massimo Girotti
  • Year: 1949
  • Why to watch: First post war Italian mafia film
  • Platform: RaiPlay (streaming platform of the Italian state broadcaster)

First Italian film to speak explicitly about the Mafia after WW2. The story, also written by Federico Fellini, is about a young magistrate sent to a small town inn Sicily. to fight against various social injustices. His zeal will lead him to clash with the Mafia. All this surrounded by a reality omertosa and strongly distrustful that does nothing but hinder his work.

2. Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

A brilliant play of flashbacks

  • Original title: Salvatore Giuliano
  • Director: Francesco Rosi
  • Leading Actor: Frank Wolff
  • Year: 1962
  • Why to watch: Brilliant screenplay is a game of flashbacks
  • Platform: Chili (UK, Italy), Canal+ (French)

Giuliano is a well-known figure in postwar Italy, because of his Robin Hood-kind of status. He would have stolen livestock and money from the wealthy nobility and landlords and distributed it to the poor in a part of Sicily. He would also be involved in the mafia. Giuliano was killed in a firefight with the police, in a less romanticized version of the facts, Giuliano was shot in his sleep and his death was subsequently staged.

About his life the wildest theories exist and one of them is elaborated in this fine film. It won director Francesco Rosi the main Berlin Film Festival PrizeMartin Scorcese, himself a director of major mafia films, considers this film to be one of the most influential movies.

3. The Day of the Owl (1968)

Detective turned anti-mafia story

  • Original title: Il giorno della civetta
  • Director: Damiano Damiani
  • Leading Actors: Franco Nero, Claudia Cardinale
  • Year: 1968
  • Why to watch: What appears to be a detective story is in reality an anti-mafia film
  • Platform: Amazon Prime

A classic mafia film with a strong, international cast. The young Franco Nero (real name: Francesco Sparanero) and Claudia Cardinale shine in this hero-against-the-system film. As a result, the film received criticism for, among other things the “harsh and corrosive criticism of institutions” and a lack of a happy ending. The screenplay is after a work by the noted critical writer Sciascia. The director is also known for ‘How to Kill a Judge’ (1974) en de mafia series ‘The Octopus’ (1984).

The film stands out in a particular way the atmosphere of silence that existed in the country and the widespread corruption in all environments (omertà).

4. The boss (1973)

Solid violence

  • Original title: Il boss
  • Director: Fernando Di Leo
  • Leading Actor: Henry Silva
  • Year: 1973
  • Why to watch: Solid exponent of the violent poliziesco genre
  • Platform: Amazon Prime, Apple Itunes, Chili

This hardcore gangster film is made by director Di Leo, a well-known representative of the Italian genre of poliziesco (mostly violent detective films). He has always managed to interest American actors to take part in his films. In this movie, set in a dark and predominantly nocturnal Palermo, Silva is the bloodless mafioso.

That the film doesn’t just tell a mob story is proven by the fact that a politician upon the release of the film filed a lawsuit for defamation. The reason was that the name of Tommaso Buscetta was mentioned in the film. Many years later, Buscetta would become the first notorious mafioso to ‘betray’ the organization. A film after the life of Buscetta is called The Traitor (see no. 12 in this list).

5. Illustrious corpses (1976)

Intrigue in the ‘years of lead’

  • Original title: Cadaveri eccellenti
  • Director: Francesco Rosi
  • Leading Actor: Lino Ventura
  • Year: 1976
  • Why to watch: Intrigue in the so-called ‘years of lead’
  • Platform: Amazon (dvd)

This film has a screenplay (once again based on Leonardo Sciascia) that captures the political situation in the 1970s very well. In those years, Italy was a battlefield between left-wing and right-wing terrorists, and on top of that there was the mafia.

In Palermo, some magistrates are killed. In charge of the investigation is the police inspector Amerigo Rogas (Ventura), who initially directs his investigations in the mafia. The chief of police forces Rogas to direct the investigations towards extreme leftist groups. Progressively, however, the inspector becomes convinced that the crimes may be part of a subversive plan hatched by organs of the state. Once certain, he tries to inform the secretary of the Comunist Party, but a murderer kills both.

The chief of police attributed the killing of the party secretary to Rogas himself, who had been showing signs of mental imbalance for some time. The leaders of the Party although they know the truth, do not take advantage of it, since they consider the conquest of power premature.

6. From Corleone to Brooklyn (1979)

Tarantino’s source inspiration

  • Original title: Da Corleone a Brooklyn
  • Director: Umberto Lenzi
  • Leading Actor: Maurizio Merli
  • Year: 1979
  • Why to watch: highlight in the poliziesco genre
  • Platform: Amazon Prime

tI put this movie in the list, because it is a highlight in the genre poliziesco. This genre, which probably doesn’t fit in today’s fashion (brutal violence, naked women), has produced hundreds of titles. Nowadays, that’s not known to film buffs presumably. Yet the genre has inspired famous filmmakers such as Querin Tarantino.

This film is a real mob story, with shootings involving dozens of deaths. Because it is set in both Sicily and New York we can speak of a Cosa Nostra story. In fact, the (criminal) relations between the Italian island and the Big Apple have been for a long time very close. The lead actor is known for dozens of such roles, in which he is the good guy, and for his moustache.

7. One Hundred Steps (2000)

First overtly anti-Mafia movie

  • Original title: I cento passi
  • Director: Marco Tullio Giordano
  • Leading Actor: Luigi Lo Cascio
  • Year: 2000
  • Why to watch: One of the first overtly anti-Mafia films
  • Platform: Now TV, Google Play

The film is about the life of Peppino Impastato. His father is a mafioso in a Sicilian village. Peppino rebels against his father and the intrigues of the mafia at an early age. He organizes cultural events and founds a radio station. He opposes the mafia and mocks his uncle, a powerful mobster, thus signing his own death warrant. 

In a sense, this film ushered in the new genre of overtly anti-mafia films. The title refers to the distance between Peppino Impastato’s house and the home of mafia boss Badalamenti.

8. The Consequences of Love (2004)

Lonely gangster film

  • Original title: Le conseguenze dell’amore
  • Director: Paolo Sorrentino
  • Leading Actor: Toni Servillo
  • Year: 2004
  • Why to watch: Lonely gangster film
  • Platform: Amazon Prime, Netflix

With this film, his second, Paolo Sorrentino had his break through internationally. Now he is considered one of the greatest directors in the world. The story is very original. It is not about shootings, nor on an indictment of how bad the mafia is anyway. It is more of a psychological story with the mafia, and also the camorra, as a backdrop. Okay, the protagonist, a lonely man, does meet his end in an ultimate and very mafia-like way.

9. Criminal Novel (2005)

Rise and fall of Rome’s most famous gang

  • Original title: Romanzo criminale
  • Director: Michele Placido
  • Leading Actors: Favino, Accorsi, Rossi Stuart
  • Year: 2005
  • Why to watch: Rise and fall of Rome’s most famous gang
  • Platform: Now Tv; Amazon Prime (tv series)

This movie is not a pure mafia movie, because the Magliana gang is from Rome, and the Italian capital does not (fortunately) have a real mafia organization within its borders. The Magliana gang was a criminal group that operated in the 70s and 80s. Although not a mafia organization (they were also rounded up fairly easily), they were however linked with Cosa Nostra, Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta.

The director of the film is famous abroad for his role as mafia fighter, police chief Corrado Cattani (The Octopus), and has collected an impressive cast for this film. The success of the film was followed by an equally successful series (two seasons).

Trailer of the mentioned film, by Michele Placido

10. Gomorrah (2008)

‘Greatest’ mafia movie kicks off a new genre

  • Original title: Gomorra
  • Director: Matteo Garrone
  • Leading Actor: Toni Sevillo
  • Year: 2008
  • Why to watch: Extremely realistic movie is start of a new film genre on the Napolitan mafia
  • Platform: Amazon Prime

A furious and brilliant engagement with the times in which we live (NY Times)

The greatest mafia movie ever made – strips every last pretense of romanticism from the Godfather saga (The Boston Herald)

A reinvention of the mafioso movie (Salon)

Do we need to say more about this so-realistic film, based on the famous work of Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano?

RELATED: read more about Saviano’s book and three other works on the Italian mafias

11. The Mafia Kills Only in Summer (2013)

Mafia seen from the eyes of a child

  • Original title: La mafia uccide solo d’estate
  • Director: Pif (Pierfrancesco Diliberto)
  • Leading Actor: Pif
  • Year: 2013
  • Why to watch: The cruelty and intrigue of the mafia seen from the eyes of a child
  • Platform: Netflix, Amazon Prime

But can the mafia kill us too?

Arturo, don’t worry, it’s winter now…the mafia only kills in the summer

This quote is typical of this well-made film that has a refreshingly ironic tone. The film is a dramatic comedy that through the childhood memories of the protagonist reconstructs, in tones often ironic, the bloody season of criminal activity of Cosa Nostra in Palermo from the seventies until the nineties.

Pietro Grasso, former National Anti-Mafia Prosecutor, called this film the best cinematic work on the Mafia he had ever seen.

12. The Traitor (2019)

Epic story about Cosa nostra’s ‘traitor’

  • Original title: Il traditore
  • Director: Marco Bellocchio
  • Leading Actor: Pierfrancesco Favino
  • Year: 2019
  • Why to watch: Epic story about the most significant ‘traitor’ of Cosa nostra
  • Platform: Amazon Prime, Netflix

Tommaso Buscetta is a Sicilian mafia boss. In the 1980s, after a violent war with Totò Riina and his mafia family, he is extradited to Italy by Brazil and becomes the first prominent penitent to break the omertà (rule of secrecy) of Cosa nostra.

The film neatly tells the story of Buscetta (1928-2000), which is quite well known in Italy. The repentant mafioso is very well interpreted by Favino, one of the best Italian actors of the current century.

12 Italian Mafia films

I hope the twelve mafia titles match your choice if you had any. Or that this list is useful for those who want to have a good impression of Italian mafia films of the last 75 years.

Following are a few questions and answers:

What distinguishes Italian mafia films from others?

Italian mafia films are often more realistic, and far less glamorous. This has to do with the fact that the first so called ‘mafia’ came from Sicily. Italy knows the phenomenon from the inside.

What are the best ever Italian mafia movies?

In the Name of the Law, Salvatore Giuliano, The boss,
Illustrious corpses, From Corleone to Brooklyn, One Hundred Steps,
The Consequences of Love, Criminal Novel, Gomorrah, The Traitor.

Are Italian police films similar to Italian mafia films?

The 1970s police genre, called poliziesco, is close to the mafia film genre (of all times). However, the police films tend to be more violent and hardly have the mafia as a theme.

Ewout is based in Rome as Italy correspondent and writer (8 books). The Dutchman is an expert journalist on Italy and its political, cultural and everyday life culture. He particularly has a special interest in the Vatican and Italian films (not necessarily related to each other). In his spare time he writes for ItalyStart to immerse readers in the world's craziest, complex but most beautiful country.

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