'Once Upon a Time in America' is a film about a group of four friends who have grown up together in New York City since the turn of the century. They grew up around crime and took part in it themselves. 'America' doesn't focus on the truly criminal aspects of the tale, though; nor does it glorify violence in any way. In a genius move, director Sergio Leone portrays how crime influences this tough, beautiful, but delicate friendship.
This brings me to the famously long flashback. Anyone who tells you it is boring, unimportant and relentless was obviously not paying attention. They must also have a short attention span, for the portrayel of the four main characters' childhood is at times beautiful, elegiac and hilarious. It tells a timeless tale of the central character in the film, Noodles (later played by Robert DeNiro), and his obsession with the local beauty (a young Jennifer Conally, later played by Elizabeth McGovern) who refuses to love him because he'll "always be a two-bit punk." It reminisces on the constant loss of virginities to the town prostitute who makes love for the price of one pastry (what accompanies this story line is a legendary scene where a young teenager succumbs to the temptation of his pastry gift). And it ends in one of the film's most emotional moments that proves you must have a strong stomach to really pay attention and/or appreciate the film to full extent. It is quite hard to watch not because of any sort of violence, but because of its emotional rawness ending in a near cataclysmic incident.
This carries over into the rest of the film, dotted with modern day looks at Noodles and his three friends who are dead at the beginning of the film. After his mental journey through the past, he searches in real life for the love of his life, played by Elizabeth McGovern. What ensues is a twist, one of the best in cinematic history (that I've seen, anyway). You won't be disappointed.
What is masterful about all of these storylines, flashbacks and flashforwards is the extent of their depth. Leone accompanies each detail with an unforgettable emotional truth that extends deep into each character's (and our own) psyche. And for those who love history, Leone sets this saga in the days of prohibition, which offers the four friends an occupation, of sorts.
Apart from the amazing depth in character and story, the production values are top notch, with glorious sets, cinematography and editing. And don't forget the delicacy of the writing and direction. It all works together so well on so many levels.
So to those who have strong stomachs (there are bouts of intense violence) and those who are not too young (this is definitely not a family film, as it portrays some graphic sexuality) and also those who are in love with cinema, I recommend 'Once Upon a Time in America.' Oh, and make sure you have a good attention span. This is not a short movie by any means, although it zips by in the best sense.