In 2008, Dana Renga sat down to watch the Super Bowl. Renga, professor of Italian and dean of arts and humanities at The Ohio State University, is “obsessed” with the commercials, she said. That year, one of the ads, for Audi, was an homage to “The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola’s famous film about an American mafia family.
“It struck me in that moment that the mafia had entered the collective American imagination,” she said.
This realization led Renga to curate an edited volume about mafia movies and, subsequently, to create a class at Ohio State on the same topic.
Italian 2055, or Mafia Movies, is now taught by Giuliano Migliori, senior associated faculty in the Department of French and Italian. It is immensely popular, with around 500 students enrolled per semester, and has been since its inception.
“The first time the class was taught, it was in Hagerty Hall, which seats a few hundred students,” Renga said. “It was absolutely packed.”
The class has two goals: to educate students about the mafia and its portrayal in popular culture and to study and critique film.
“Students are watching movies and discussing the subject matter but they’re also analyzing, interpreting and learning how we engage with this medium,” Migliori said. “We do some formal scene analysis but in short videos so it’s accessible and approachable, almost informal, to make that type of scholarship closer to what students know.”
One of the obstacles Renga and Migliori encounter with the class is concerns that mafia movies perpetuate stereotypes. They welcome this discussion.
“The entire structure of the course begins with stereotypes and how to contextualize the ways in which ethnic groups, minorities, Italians and immigrants have evolved on screen,” Migliori said. “We are trying to compare the reality of the mafia, which is not just one type of organization but a polymorphic phenomenon, to what we see in the films.”
“This semester, for the first time, we’re going to talk about the ‘Ndrangheta,’ the Calabrian mafia, which has been involved in a huge trial for the last year and a half,” he said. “It’s not well known and certainly not in our students’ minds. This is a great way to compare and contrast our assumptions about these types of crimes and their impact in our societies.”
The fact that Italy is home to many regional mafias allows students to learn about Italy as a multidimensional country as well.
“The mafia was formed in the 1860s, and Italy, as a nation, was solidified in 1861,” Renga said. “This is a thing we talk about: A lot of the history in Italy cannot be separated from the history of the mafia.”
Because of this cultural focus, Mafia Movies satisfies a general education requirement at Ohio State, which means it draws students from many different majors. Most come the College of Engineering and the Fisher College of Business.
“I want to say 60-70% of the students are outside [the College of Arts and Sciences], which is a great opportunity to get them to try something else,” Renga said. “Maybe they take another film class or do an Italian minor.”
Migliori does not see demand for the course slowing down any time soon. Stories about the mafia are just as popular as they were in 2008, he said. He recalls an ad he saw during this year’s Super Bowl, this time for Chevrolet. The subject? “The Sopranos.”