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Donnie Brasco: profoundly moving, beautifully made

Thriller Thursdays: A true story of an undercover agent who builds friendships inside the Mafia which rankle his conscience and trigger events beyond his control

Donnie Brasco:  profoundly moving, beautifully made

Last Updated: 09.34 PM, Nov 10, 2022


In our weekly column, Thriller Thursdays, we recommend specially-curated thrillers that’ll send a familiar chill down your spine.

The film starts with a sepulchral broodiness. Eyes fill the screen – unhappy eyes, thinking eyes, observing eyes, reflective eyes. A montage of faces, and soulful music. There is an overwhelming feeling of inquiry, musing, and uncertainty. And the feeling never leaves us. Donnie Brasco has cataclysm written all over it.

Lefty (Al Pacino) is arguing in a bar with a couple of guys, about Lincoln being a better car than Mercedes. And then he notices a smooth dapper guy sitting at the bar, looking askance at him. Don the jewel thief (Johnny Depp). Lefty likes what he sees, makes inquiries, double inquires, and approaches Don to join him. Lefty is a collector, an enforcer, for Mafia, the Bonanno family. And he wants his man to ride with him on his adventures. Not knowing, of course, that Don was actually an undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone.


There have been incredible undercover dramas over the years, some of them ranked as classics – think Hitchcock's Notorious or Scorsese's The Departed, the action-packed Point Break or the tense The Courier and Donnie Brasco is up there with them. There is an inevitability to the proceedings, based as it is on a true story, but there is still tension which fills the proceedings. But much more than the creed, the film examines the relationships which people build, and how inside a killer, is also a humane heart which recognizes goodness and wants it for itself.

Lefty has had 26 hits but is rolled over for promotion for Sonny Black (Michael Madsen), and that is a frustration and anger he carries inside him. And soon he gets to rely on Don to unburden his heart and his truths. And in the process, he builds a relationship much deeper than that of a criminal associate. One of the infinite charms of Donnie Brasco is the way the roughly-hewn exterior of Lefty is broken to reveal the human heart inside. Al Pacino lives the role with a panache which has more to do with immersion than mere talent.


Also incredibly powerful is Don's transition as a person, as he gets to live the Mafia life – of distrust, violence, and immediate retribution, and how it all starts to seep into his being. Till it finally bursts open in his interaction with his wife Maggie (Anne Heche). As it were, Maggie is increasingly frustrated with having an absent husband, as she has to raise three daughters all alone. And then he starts to go missing for Christmas eve, his daughter's communion, and then for months on end. And it all bursts through its seams one critical night when she confronts him, and he hits her, with his own frustration exploding. But more than that, violence had started to become normal for him, gaining legitimacy in his behaviour. The scene is beautifully calibrated and acted. Anne Heche is aghast as she is hit, and is still, dreadfully still, for long moments. Then she says, "Did you ever once ask yourself how I make it through my days? I pretend I'm a widow, with medals and scrapbooks and memories. I pretend you're dead. That's how my life makes sense to me."

Donnie Brasco is sensitively and smartly written, full of funny lines as well as pungent ones. At one point an FBI technician asks about how the phrase "Forget about it" could be used in myriad ways. To have Mark Newell direct this film, right after the completely contrasting Four Weddings and a Funeral is a leap of faith and prescience in the producers which I am sure is a story by itself. And he does deliver. He starts with a light hand and a smoothness which makes you miss Scorsese's viscerality. It is almost as if the director was holding himself back. And one can see his relationship with the violence which comes in the third act when he says that the point of all violence is to show that it's "a terrible mess".


The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Peter Sova, in gold and blue and baize, depending on the geography and mood, underlined as it is with a background score replete with tunes from the 70s. And ensconced in its schemata of violence, death and treachery is a tale of a gangster who hadn't lost his moral compass and an honest man who was trying hard not to lose his.


  1. Johnny Depp was cast as Donnie Brasco because the makers thought he looked Italian. In reality, Depp says he's "one part Cherokee and the rest mutt."
  2. Innuendo suggests that Johnny Depp's destroying a hotel room in 1994 and his subsequent arrest helped him get the role. The general impression was that he was "dark and dangerous."
  3. Al Pacino loved being able to use all the rich Mafia slang throughout the film, which was because screenwriter Paul Attanasio had Joseph D. Pistone's wiretaps and could capture the mafia dialect so authentically.

Watch Donnie Brasco here.

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

(Written by Sunil Bhandari, a published poet and host of the podcast ‘Uncut Poetry’)