Goncharov (1973), a criminally underseen mafia movie by Martin Scorsese starring his on-again off-again muse Robert DeNiro, has a singular perfect scene which few viewers can ever forget.
As our ‘hero’ Goncharov (DeNiro) lies bleeding out, his battle lost, he remembers meeting his Russian assailant Andrey in a happier time, several decades ago. They’re in a park. Goncharov lights Andrey’s cigarette; the moment is shockingly tender. As they turn toward the glittering city vista, the scene fades back to Gonacharov dying.
‘The nature of the scene is intentionally ambiguous – Andrey has only known Goncharov a few months, so chronologically, it’s out of place,’ writes academic Francine Rubek in her book Violent Delights, Violent Ends: On Queer Readings of Masculine Tragedy (2003, Oxford University Press). ‘Is it a false memory, a hallucination, or the wish fulfilment of a dying man?’
But there are several problems here. Number one: Francine Rubek does not exist, and her book was never published. Number two: Goncharov isn’t a real movie. Some people on the social-media blogging site Tumblr made it up.
The Greatest Mafia Movie (n)Ever Made
In 2020, Tumblr user ZooTycoon posted a picture of knock-off boots they’d bought with a label that says GONCHAROV: THE GREATEST MAFIAMOVIE (sic) EVER MADE. A bold statement for a film no-one has heard of, right?
ZooTycoon wrote on their tumblr post: ‘i got these knockoff boots online and instead of the brand name on the tag they have the name of an apparently nonexistent martin scorsese movie??? what the fuck.’
They appear to be a factory misprint of the word Gomorrah, which is indeed a real film presented by Scorsese. Let’s compare:
But look at the Goncharov boot again: it’s produced by … wait, sorry, ‘proolctuced’ by Domenico Procacci, an Italian producer behind some 145 movies. It’s presented by Martin Scorsese, presumably for a nice sum. And it’s directed by Matteo JWHJ0715, who, uhh … actually I have no idea who that is. The world’s first robot director?
Two years after the original post, an addition was made. A US-based Tumblr user by the name of AbandonedAmbition left a message under ZooTycoon’s image, which simply said: ‘this idiot hasn’t seen goncharov.’
By implying that the misprint was actually a real, underappreciated movie that one would lose their cinephile cred for not knowing, AbandonedAmbition spurred the Goncharov phenomenon into frenzied existence.
Suddenly, everyone on Tumblr had seen Goncharov, the 1973 Martin Scorsese mafia film. It just wasn’t known very well outside of die-hard cinephile circles, that’s why some hadn’t heard of it. It’s a classic collective gag, on par with convincing tourists that drop bears are real (Just kidding, I know they’re very real and 100% out for blood). In improv, we call it ‘committing to the bit’.
And boy, did people really commit.
The only thing that doesn’t exist is the film itself
As of 23 November 2022, the following items had been created to provide ‘evidence’ that Goncharov is indeed a real movie: a theatrical poster, AI-generated stills, a Letterboxd page, Wikipedia entry, TV tropes page, a Roger Ebert review (which gave it four stars), merchandise you can actually buy, and numerous posts of film theory, fan art, and fan fiction.
Tumblr User caramiaaddio even composed a main title theme for it, which you can listen to below (it’s lovely, and I highly recommend listening to it as you read on):
We definitely know the film is about a man named Goncharov (DeNiro), a former discothèque owner who comes to Naples after the fall of the Soviet Union and begins to work his bloody way up the ranks of organised crime.
In the process, Goncharov grows entangled with Andrey (Harvey Keitel), a banker, and the mysterious Katya (Cybill Shepherd). Goncharov is dating Katya but may be repressing feelings for Andrey. There’s a lot of clock symbolism, perhaps because their time is running out. It also stars Al Pacino as Mario Ambrosini, and Gene Hackman as Joseph ‘Ice Pick Joe’ Morelli. And people are still unsure whether it was directed or merely produced by Scorsese.
What a hook! With that star power, an action-packed plot, homoerotic themes, and a timely commentary on Cold War tensions, how could Goncharov fail? Still, it was apparently lost to time without so much as a mention in the Top 100 Films lists. Some say this was due to a ‘legal issue over rights’, while others say the mafia actually targeted distribution of the film due to ‘upsetting stereotypes’. The lore runs deep.
We have a plot, we have promotional images, and we have detailed discourse. At this stage, the only thing that doesn’t exist is the film itself.
Who dun it?
Despite a handful of sources being repeatedly named as the mastermind behind Goncharov, no one I spoke to wanted to claim full responsibility for this masterpiece of superfiction.
When I spoke to AbandonedAmbition online (who preferred to remain anonymous), she said she was ‘pleasantly surprised’ that people had gotten so into it, and that she was ‘unironically’ joyful about all the fan works that had spawned from the original gag. But she doesn’t credit herself with inventing the joke.
‘I didn’t find the boots in the first place,’ she told me, ‘and someone else screencapped my joke. The informal “peer review” process here is necessarily multi-participant.’ And indeed, if it weren’t for many, many people jumping on the opportunity to add to the Goncharov phenomenon, it really wouldn’t work.
As Tumblr user ImSoBadAtNicknames2 wrote in a post: ‘Goncharov is a crowdscourced, non-linear mixed-media epistolary novel which uses the internet blog format to explore and comment on different facets of fandom culture, film production, and the way that audiences on the website Tumblr and the internet at large interact with media.’
And now that it’s broken containment, so to speak, and gone beyond the Tumblr platform to delight Twitter and TikTok users alike, it really is bigger than any one of the individuals that contributed to the gag.
I also spoke to the creator of the theatrical poster (shown below), who wanted to be known only as ‘Beelz‘ – an artist from the Czech Republic.
‘I’m really only responsible for the poster and naming the characters in it,’ they said.
‘I went for a 70s hand-painted mafia movie poster look. Many people point out it looks too modern and I do have to agree. There wasn’t all that much thought put into it.’
Despite the 15 minutes of fame afforded to them from the Goncharov gag, Beelz said that they were ‘ready for things to die down a little’.
‘I’m an artist so I love the fanart, and the lore everyone has created around this film’.
‘But in a way, I do feel like it’s gone too far. I will not be sad when it’s over.’
Is Goncharov here to stay as one of the great ‘lost films’ of the last century? Or, just like the titular character, has its time run out?
‘These days, memes come and go quickly,’ AbandonedAmbition said. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised to learn all this comes to an end in a week or two, but I’m in no rush to get there.’
As for the original poster of the Goncharov boots, ZooTycoon: their Tumblr account had long been de-activated, leaving my quest for knowledge at a dead end.
But, maybe it didn’t matter who did it.
In the end, Goncharov (1973) was nothing but a collective fever dream, invented as a tool for connection and levity. The Naples Mafia was merely the friends we made along the way. And without a doubt, Goncharov was the Greatest Mafia Movie Ever Made.