Investigating the Mafia in Literature, Cinema, and the Media

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Course Information
Terms offered: 
Fall, Spring
Language of instruction: 
Contact Hours: 

No previous Italian Literature background is necessary. More advanced students such as Italian majors will receive assignments personally tailored to their level and interests.

Additional student cost: 

None other than the cost of the course pack (similar to a textbook cost)


The Mafia and the Italian State originated in the same period, the end of the 19th century, and from then on their histories have always been closely related. From Sicily, the “octopus” (piovra), as the Mafia is called in Italy, has spread throughout Italy, and has pervaded almost every facet of the Italian life, included the cultural life. It has exerted an enormous appeal on literature, cinema and the media in general. This course presents a selection of the long-standing tradition of fiction and non-fiction texts that scrutinizes the Mafia from distinct intellectual and creative angles of vision. The selection of novels, films, testimonies and tv series will offer different representations of the Mafia: its ethics, its relation with politics, religion and business, its ideas of friendship, family, masculinity and femininity. It will challenge some of the cliché around the Mafia, and will offer interesting insights on the Italian cultural identity. A section will be dedicated to the Mafia in Milano. 

Attendance policy: 

Regular class attendance is mandatory. Students are expected to attend classes each day, including course-related excursions.

IES Abroad Milano allows a maximum of TWO excused absences per semester. Each further absence will automatically result in a penalty of two points off (2/100) on the final grade. SEVEN absences per course (including 2 excused absences) will result in a failing grade for that course. Furthermore, an absence on the date of scheduled tests, presentations or quizzes does not entitle you to recover/reschedule such tests. Failure to attend your midterm and/or final exam will result in an F grade on that paper/exam.

Learning outcomes: 

By the end of the semester, students will be able to:

  • Critically analyze important works of Italian literature and cinema according to their textual typologies.
  • Compile information on the Italian historical, cultural and literary background through lectures, readings and personal research.
  • Design a geographical, historical and cultural map of the Mafia phenomenon in Italy. 
Method of presentation: 

The course will alternate lectures from the instructor, class discussions, readings, screenings of films and students presentations, and select field studies in and around Milan. 

Required work and form of assessment: 
  • Active participation through discussion, reading and writing - 10%
  • Oral presentations - 20%
  • Paper - 20%
  • Midterm Exam - 25%
  • Final Exam - 25%

Each student will be asked to write a paper (2500 words) based on the information collected in the readings and the screenings presented in class, and on their personal research. The paper will allow them to show their competence in organizing and interpreting the information they collected both from the course, and from outside sources, like local libraries, scholarly papers and newspapers articles. They will have to present their personal project to the class to show their ability to communicate what they have found.

Both the Midterm and Final exams will be organized through a series of short answer questions (to evaluate the students’ reading and comprehension ability), and two essay questions (to evaluate their ability in critical thinking).  


In the course we will investigate the following topics about the Mafia:

  • The origins (The Leopard film and book, The Godfather film)
  • Mafia and the State (The Day of the Owl, book and film)
  • Mafia and Politics (Excellent Cadavers, essay; In un altro paese, documentary)
  • Women in, against and around the Mafia (testimonies)
  • Mafia and the children (I’m Not Scared, book and film)
  • Mafia and business (Gomorra, book and film)
  • The Duomo connection: the Mafia in Milan (“Milan the City of Crime”, course-pack, Barbara Pezzotti)

Excerpts of the films will be viewed in class, while the entire film has to be watched at home, as a form of assignment.

Week Content
  • Introduction to the course. Testimonies
  • The Leopard, (ch. 1, circa pp.60): Unification of Italy; The Origins of the Mafia, the Myth
  • The Leopard, (ch. 2, circa pp. 50): Old Men vs New Men
  • The Leopard, (ch. 3, circa pp. 50): Old Women vs New Women
  • The Leopard, (ch. 4, circa pp. 50): North vs South
  • The Leopard, (ch. 5, circa pp. 30): Men of Honor
  • The Leopard, (ch. 6, circa pp. 30), and Visconti’s film, The Leopard: The Ball
  • The Leopard, (ch. 7-8, circa pp. 40), Coppola’s film The Godfather. John Dickie, Cosa Nostra (pp. 92-106): The Mafia Goes to America
  • The Day of the Owl (pp.1-62): Mafia and the State
  • The Day of the Owl (pp.63-107), and excerpt from Damiani’s film The Day of the Owl
  • General Review.
  • John Dickie, Cosa Nostra (pp. 13-90)
  • Midterm Exam
  • John Dickie, Cosa Nostra (pp. 122-180): War in and around the Mafia
  • Alexander Stille, Excellent Cadavers (pp. 1-38): Falcone and Borsellino
  • Alexander Stille, Excellent Cadavers (pp. 40-80), and, In un altro paese, documentary
  • Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah (“The Port”, circa pp. 20): The New Geography of the Mafia: Naples, the Port
  • Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah (“Angelina Jolie”, “The System”, circa pp. 80): Mafia and Fashion Business
  • Saviano, Gomorrah (“Women”, circa pp. 40), and Testimonies (course-pack, circa pp. 30): Women in, around and against the Mafia 
  • Ammaniti, I’m Not Scared (circa pp.200)
  • I’m Not Scared, film by Salvatores
  • The Mafia Goes North: Milan, the Ambrosoli Case (course-pack, circa pp.60)
  • Students Oral Presentations and Conclusions
12 Final Exam


Required readings: 
  • Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (Pantheon, 2007)
  • Leonardo Sciascia, The Day of the Owl (NYRB Classics, 2003)
  • Niccolò Ammaniti, I’m Not Scared (Anchor, 2004)
  • Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples' Organized Crime System (Picador, 2008)
  • Alexander Stille, Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic (Vintage, 1996)
  • John Dickie, Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)
  • Course-pack


Films are available in the IES library and should be viewed outside of class time.

  • Luchino Visconti, Il gattopardo (1963)
  • Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather (1972)
  • Damiano Damiani, The Day of the Owl (1968)
  • Gabriele Salvatores, Io non ho paura (2003)
  • Matteo Garrone, Gomorra (2008)
  • Marco Turco, In un altro paese (2005), documentary