29 August 2023

Mobsters: on and off screen

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is the 209th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below] 

 I am not much of a movie buff. I tend to re-watch movies I’ve enjoyed; classics, rom coms, and historical dramas, in the main. I’m not interested in horror movies. Mob movies didn’t interest me either.  In fact I watched Godfather III only because some friends dragged me to the theatre. It was twenty years later that I watched the first two Godfather movies.

My friend Dhammika Amarakoon was the one who got me interested in that genre. In fact it was after he got me to see ‘Analyze This’ and its sequel ‘Analyze That,’ both starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, that I decided to watch the Godfather trilogy.  ‘Donny Brasco,’ which he made me watch a few days ago, punctuated by pause and commentary, was fascinating. Indeed, of all the mafia movies mentioned above, this to me was the most moving.

The film is based on the nonfiction book ‘Donnie Brasco: My undercover life in the mafia’ written by Joseph D Pistone and Richard Woodley. Donnie Brasco is the alias that Pistone (played by Johnny Depp), an FBI undercover agent who infiltrates the Bonanno crime family in New York City during the 1970s after cultivating a friendship with an ageing mafia hitman, Lefty Ruggiero (played by Al Pacino).

The film delves into the relationship between the two and in particular Bronco’s multiple dilemmas where the line differentiating federal agent and criminal getting fudged while feigned loyalty is compromised by true friendship.Through it all, the character Lefty is fleshed out more fully than any hitman featured in the mob movies I’ve watched.

Lefty dishes out some priceless philosophical observations and political commentary. Al Pacino of course, as the deliverer of all of that, is at his characteristic best. It can’t be too difficult to script philosophy into dialogue and there’s no way of knowing how much of it was actually said in the off-screen story. People are philosophical, even if they don’t always express it or write it down in biographies. Mobsters are no exception.

It’s all laid out thick: the mafia code and within it a certain trace of righteousness and the unapologetic choices, but most of all the refreshing (yes!) absence of pretence. It was all confirmed yesterday when I read about some 2,000 historical artifacts, dating from the 15th century BC to the 1800s, worth tens of millions of pounds being stolen from the British Museum’s vaults.

George Osborne, the chair of the institution’s board of trustees, has stated that the stolen objects were ‘small items of jewelry, gems and bits of gold,’ rather than ‘the incredible items that we have on display in public.’  He has also said ‘the museum has taken steps to improve security, while staff focus on ‘cleaning up the mess' and cataloguing the missing artefacts.

In the aftermath of the theft being announced, Greece’s Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, has stated that the related security questions ‘reinforces the permanent and just demand of [Greece] for the definitive return of the Parthenon Marbles,’ removed from the Acropolis of Athens in the early 19th century by British nobleman (sic) Lord Elgin. Britain has steadfastly denied Greece’s requests for the relics to be repatriated.

So what do we have here if not British officials being upset about the theft of antiquities that constitute just a tiny fraction of all that has been looted from territories invaded over several centuries and held in the British Museum. The artefacts themselves constitute a fraction of all the wealth extracted in the long centuries of plunder. 

‘The incredible items on public display,’ then, are all stolen goods. Britain and other countries that have looted lands in Africa, Asia and Latin America AND who offer tuition classes on good governance, law and order, justice, humanity etc etc have either claimed that present day citizenry cannot be held accountable for the crimes of their ancestors. They have also raised questions over the ability of former colonies to safeguard artifacts in the event holdings are decolonized. 

Well, we can forget about holding current citizens responsible, but this doesn’t mean stolen goods should not be returned to those who have the strongest claim to ownership, i.e. the relevant countries, surely? As for security, the British Museum theft puts that particular baby to sleep doesn’t it?

The evidence collected by Joseph Pistone led to over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of Mafia members including Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero.  Lefty was all about ‘what you see is what you get.’ Unapologetic. Most mobsters don’t bother to dress themselves as saints. There’s something redeeming there.

Here’s some food for thought:

‘A catalogue of antiquities and other cultural objects from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) abroad,’ by P.H.D.H. De Silva, published in 1974, lists a considerable set of known artifacts stolen from this island.  There are over 15,000 items listed.  The loot it seems has ended up in 23 countries and 140 holding facilities.  The vast majority are in Britain.  Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Berkshire, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, and Windsor all have ‘Little pieces of Ceylon’ so to speak.  All stolen goods.  For antique and historical value, each and every amulet, the tiniest statuette, the most fragile manuscript with hardly legible lettering, is priceless. 
So there’s nothing redeeming about people like George Osborne trying to assure people that ‘incredible items are still on display,’ without uttering a word about theft, thieves and their present day apologists. Mobsters off the screen. That’s what they are. 


Other articles in this series: 

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road