In the new BBC show, religious observance is little more than a tribal marker
Have you been watching McMafia? It is rather interesting, though perhaps not for all the right reasons.
First of all, McMafia – a tale of international gangsterism, inspired by the non-fiction book of the same title by Misha Glenny – represents the BBC’s attempt to see off the competition from its latest rivals, the internet streaming services like Netflix. McMafia is there to remind us that if we want televisual thrills, the traditional provider is just as good, if not better, than the new kids on the block.
That the BBC should want to compete with Netflix strikes me as a bad idea, for it is a war the BBC cannot win. Netflix provides endless hours of high-class entertainment at a fraction of the cost of the licence fee. The BBC, despite that licence fee, simply does not have the cash to compete. It ought to stick to doing what it already does well in fields where Netflix is not trying to compete, such as news, current affairs and the sort of drama that does not have scenes in Prague, London, Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Cairo and Antibes, as this one does.
McMafia represents, if rumour be true, an audition for the part of James Bond by its star James Norton. Norton has already delighted as a sleuthing vicar in Grantchester, and terrified as a psychotic inarticulate working class thug in Happy Valley. In both roles he was excellent. In the current role, not so much. As Alex Godman, the clean young man sucked into the criminal and violent milieu of his Russian mafioso family, he looks at best enigmatic, at worst out of his depth. He is by no means the best thing in the drama: that goes to the cast of non-British actors, all of whom are delightfully creepy, disturbing and at the same time strangely sympathetic. Alex’s father, a deeply unhappy man, shows us that money cannot buy you happiness; well, we knew that. What perhaps we did not know was how much some people will devote their lives to the pursuit of money and power, even when they know that they bring only misery. The splendour of a multimillion pound Knightsbridge flat certainly does not outweigh the bitter tears of Alex’s mother, played by the beautiful Russian actress Maria Shukshina.
But enough of Russian beauties; McMafia also has a religious element to it, which will, naturally, be of huge interest to readers of the Catholic Herald. This does not rely on the well-worn facts that Mr Norton went to Ampleforth, read Divinity at Cambridge and played a vicar; rather it centres on the fact that several of the Russian characters have a visible religious allegiance. The Godmans are Jewish, and their deadly rival Vadim Kalyagin is Orthodox.
In the first episode, Uncle Boris has a Jewish funeral, and the men of the family all wear the kippah for the occasion. There is a reference to the family sitting shiva for the late Boris. On another occasion, Dimitri Godman’s mistress remarks on the fact that he has no tattoos, and his reply betrays that he is ignorant (or were the scriptwriters?) of the reason why no observant Jew would ever have a tattoo. However, it must be pointed out that no one in the Godman family seems remotely religious, and their Judaism seems a cultural designation rather than a religious one. Certainly there is no evidence of any allegiance to the moral demands of the Law.
The disconnect between religious allegiance and moral practice is made dramatically clear in the third episode, which was shown on Sunday night. At one point we see the archenemy of the Godmans, Vadim Kalyagin, accompanied by his daughter, lighting a candle in what is supposed to be a church, and crossing himself in the Orthodox manner; a few minutes later he is beating a man to death with an iron bar, with a brutality that shocks his underlings.
What exactly is this trying to tell us? That the practice of religion by criminals is hypocritical? That is hardly an arresting point. Perhaps it is trying to tell us something a little more original, namely that in the world of the mafia, tribal markers are important, and the outward signs of religious allegiance are an important tribal marker, a sign of belonging. The mafia belongs to a world with strong divisions between us and them, and religious symbols reinforce these identities. But it must be made clear that these symbols have been emptied of their meaning; the sign of the cross made by Kalyagin, or the kippah worn by Alex Godman, are hollowed out symbols. As such they act as reproaches, perhaps.
The Jewish Chronicle remarks: “Concern has been expressed that McMafia paints Israel and Jews in a negative light.” It then goes on to say: “Now, many of those who made money in the heady days of perestroika were Jews, and many of them fled Russia rather than face trumped-up charges from a greedy government, some going to Israel, others to places like London. And not all of them were squeaky clean.”
One could, of course, say that any drama, and there have been lots, dealing with the Italian mafia, could be construed as anti-Catholic. But that is far too simplistic. Consider The Godfather by Mario Puzo and the great film sequence it gave rise to by Francis Ford Coppola. Both book and films are deeply Catholic, and, in a sense, moral tracts. Let’s wait and see where McMafia goes. My hope is that it will surprise us. As the Jewish Chronicle advises, surely rightly: “So, let’s see how things pan out and not rush hastily to judgment.”