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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Once Upon a Time In America (1984)



Reviews and Comments

Sergio Leone took 14 years to bring this gangster epic to the big screen, and it was well after he died before it was ever released intact. The original cut was a masterwork, nearly four hours long, but it was originally released to theaters as an incomprehensible cut scarcely over two hours. Critics thrashed the film, only to acknowledge it later as a classic when the original cut was restored.

Was the proper cut worth it all? Yeah, but with a caveat. The film is a classic work and provides much food for thought for thinking viewers. But it's not a very pleasant experience: the sordid world of the mob is sordid indeed, not at all glamorized. The unpleasantness culminates in an agonizing rape, made all the more unbearable by its perfunctory execution.

The key to understanding the film is understanding how Robert De Niro's character's conscience eventually catches up with him and punishes him for his moral depravity. How much of the film is real, and how much is his subconscious flailing to find a way to forgive himself? I have an affinity for this kind of cerebral puzzle that explores human nature. For me, it redeemed what was otherwise a film more punishing than rewarding, despite the brilliance of the writing and filmmaking.