The Soviet Union has fallen. Former discotheque owner Goncharov (Robert De Niro) is sent (or perhaps banished) to Naples, where he runs into banker Andrey (Harvey Keitel). Having been inseparable as teenagers, the two men find their affection for each other rekindled, despite now being bitter rivals in the field of organised crime. Meanwhile, Gonachrov’s wife, the spy Katya (Cybill Shepherd), flits into an extramarital romance of her own with Sophia (Sophia Loren), a woman she’s employing. Oh and there’s also ‘Ice Pick’ Joe (John Cazale), a violent killer with a penchant for ice pick-related puns.
This is Goncharov, a “lost” Martin Scorsese production meant to be released in 1973, the same year as Mean Streets. It’s a story of intersecting love triangles that are alternately homoerotic and sapphic, terms that wouldn’t usually be used to describe a mafia movie. It’s a haunting ode to time running out, to the slipperiness of identity and to the unending struggle between duty and desire. It also doesn’t exist. At least not outside of Tumblr.
On Monday, the film was the no. 1 trending topic on the site (Scorsese himself was no. 2), with more than 12,000 posts. Its origin is at least a year old — a Tumblr user posted a pair of knockoff boots they’d ordered, which arrived with a strange label reading “The greatest mafia movie ever made. Martin Scorsese presents GONCHAROV” — but the conversation around the film began to pick up steam after a 26-year-old artist from Prague created a fake poster for it a few days ago. The title font is riddled with bullet holes. The tagline reads: Winter comes to Naples. “I came across the shoe and thought it would be funny to make a poster for a nonexistent movie,” says the artist, who did not want to be identified. They fired up Photoshop and fancasted their favourite actors in the film, many of whom Scorsese has worked with over the years.
What might have started off as an in-joke, with each user taking the prompt and running with it, has now spiralled into a complex web of detailed plot points, screenshots from the “movie”, lovingly created fan art and analysis of certain scenes that are so convincing and well-argued, you almost want to believe the movie is real. If one user recommends the “underrated” book trilogy that the film is based on, another suggests you check out its Thai remake, KinnPorsche: La Forte, a 14-episode series that aired this year and turns the gay subtext into text.
“It's caught on because people are dedicated to making good art and good jokes. It's a huge piece of improv, a site-wide session of everyone saying, ‘Yes, and,’ together to add to a whole,” says Matt Lee, a 32-year-old freelance composer from the UK. He’s one of nearly 40 Tumblr users who were spontaneously inspired to create music for the film. (Another user has been compiling the growing score .) To create 'The Bridge Breaks', Matt began work at midnight, putting off sleep and taking cues from the film’s recurring clock motifs and its tragic bridge scene, a goodbye between Katya and Goncharov that has her second-guessing her decision to betray him.
The composer credits this with making him want to “throw together a quick track” scoring the sequence, though to hear him describe his work reveals it to be an incredibly thoughtful process. “I wanted something that would build, grow tense, and then have a sudden release. I decided that the low strings were Goncharov, the piano Katya. When the low strings end, the piano still plays its part because she takes the memory of Goncharov with her,” he says. “There's a drum beating like a heart as the adrenaline kicks in, and underneath it all, is the ticking of the clock, which grows faster and starts to move from left to right in your ear, because I wanted it to feel like time was rushing past.”
Lending the film more legitimacy are , a scanned and . Even actress Lynda Carter got in on the joke, posting a black-and-white photo of her and actor Henry Winkler “at the premiere of Goncharov at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre”. (The photo is actually from the 1997 Golden Globe Awards). Twilight author posted about the film being one of her dad’s favourites and the influence it’s had on her work. On Archive of our Own, Goncharov has than Avatar (2009), the second-highest-grossing movie of all time. The poster artist from Prague estimates that around a hundred people have bought his Goncharov merchandise so far.
It’s almost tragic that a film with such a passionate and ever-increasing fanbase isn’t real, but for many, that’s precisely the allure. “Goncharov has just enough lore supporting it that you have a set of themes to play off — Italy, the 70s, crime, death, love — but total freedom of execution,” says Miles, a 24-year-old visual artist from Tasmania. “You can style it as a noir drama, a psychological crime film, a mafia action movie, a sad romance, and all of it is correct. It's like we're all in on a joke, and we're all in-character, like a big improvised play.”
Intrigued by the contrast between Goncharov and Andrey as two figures with 70s-era masculinity in a hyper-male field like organised crime and the idea of how they would really act behind closed doors, Miles uploaded three pages of a “” in the film, a confrontation between the two men that establishes Goncharov’s resigned acceptance of his inevitable death and his friend’s barely concealed desperation to save him from himself. “No matter how many times you watch Goncharov, he will die at the end. However, the point is not that it ends in tragedy, it’s that Goncharov will not let himself live happily while he is still alive. He is punishing himself for a future that is predestined,” he explains. Miles’ writing was also informed by Goncharov’s religious conflicts and Catholic guilt, themes that recur in Scorsese’s movies.
For every serious reading of the film, there’s an equally cheeky bit of lore added. Goncharov’s direction has been credited to Matteo JWHJ 0715, the son of “an Italian ”, as straight-faced Tumblr users explain. This dedication to the in-joke is a uniquely Tumblr trait — in 2013, users were bombarded with thousands of images of Supernatural actor Misha Collins’ face photoshopped into various settings in an event called the Mishapocalypse — but it’s also a phenomenon that goes much further, cementing how the act of fandom isn’t one of passive consumption but also active participation, in creating fanfic and fanart, in joining a community bound by shared interests.
For many creators, Goncharov is a means of gaining a sense of ownership, the idea that instead of creating fanart and fanfiction simply based on an existing property or ‘canon’, they’re now the ones in complete control of how the main story unfolds. “People have made masterposts for the information gathered, which makes it easier for people to add onto the lore of Goncharov together while not changing anything someone has already established,” says Miles. “Gradually, we watch the plot unfold through quotes and essays and art that embellishes and elaborates on itself like a snowball rolling down a hill.”
If this is the greatest mafia movie ever made, then it stands to reason that Goncharov as a whole cannot exist, its perfection unattainable, its allure stemming from how creators have embraced the gaps instead of working to close them. As its lore continues to , however, there’s something beautiful about the proliferation of this entirely fanmade work, the love and care that’s been put into it, the careful consideration of an auteur’s filmography and all this joyous celebration centered around this, the greatest mafia movie never made.