Few films had such a troubled birth as Gangs of New York. The film was in Martin Scorsese’s mind almost thirty years earlier, after reading Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury. And it’s probably the most politically-committed movie made by the New York director, so inspired in many traits by the classic American cinema that recalled the old continent: those years when U.S.A. and America were still used to express their mainly European origins.
That’s what New York was. The city that emerged as the capital of the western world, a conglomerate of cultures that ranged from the old continent to Africa and Asia, where everyone lived in small communities, according to their nationality. As “the butcher” Bill Cutting would say: “Rhythms of the Dark Continent thrown into the kettle with an Irish shindig. Stir it around a few times, pull it out, it’s a fine American mess. A jig doing a jig.”
In the nineteenth century the “Five Points”, a crucial place in this story, defined the five corners of the main crossroads in the current Manhattan island, exactly between the financial district and Chinatown. At that time, the area could be easily defined as one of the most infamous in the world, and legend has it that in the old brewery located in the neighborhoods there was at least one murder per day, from 1837 to 1852 (year of its demolition). Of course, it was also one of the first experiments of multiculturalism, which also gave good things to the country: the coexistence of the Irish population together with the former African slaves created dances like the tap dance, which had a merit in the birth of jazz and rock’n’roll.
Scorsese succeeds to show a naked America: a nation built in violence and racial hate, nevertheless able to build something important in its evolution. In some of its traits, the film looks like a canvas painted in a crude way, with its contradictions still open. A movie made on light and dark emotions, with a director of photography (Michael Ballhaus) who wanted red and dark tones (if it wasn’t for Conrad L. Hall’s Road to Perdition, the Academy Award would have arrived).
The soundtrack is also a little gem and contains various songs from Irish artists. Like Finbar Furey, who also appears in a little cameo while singing in the Satan’s Circus band. And of course there are U2 and their single The hands that built America, an emotional song that represents the Irish band when it was still a big source of inspiration for rock music.
The keystone of the film is certainly in the two main characters, able to create a crossed relationship between the butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the young Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio). Lewis offers us the full representation of the violence that the natives had against Irish immigrants, showing in the meanwhile also the honor and the pride of his people.
One clear element of the movie is the acceptance of violence as a mean to reach a goal, an indispensable attitude for those times, for that social class. Like in a war, you immediately realize that many will perish without experiencing any feeling of empathy or mercy. This topic emerges already in the beginning of the film, with the epic battle of the “priest” Vallon (played by the Irish Liam Neeson) against the “natives” of Bill, unleashing immediately the plot. In a film where symbolism is vital, objects such as medallions and daggers are able to improve the narrative and keep us close to the daily routine of that time.
A work that lasts a bit less than three hours, creating some production issue: the budget reached almost a hundred million dollars, putting at risk the solidity of Miramax as a production company. Filmed entirely in Cinecitta Studios, with all locations carefully recreated thanks to the excellent Dante Ferretti, Gangs Of New York shows New York as a city full of contrasts, able to keep its soul intact despite those “furious days” mentioned by Amsterdam.