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Probably the first movie made anywhere that realistically portrays the Sicilian Mafia, Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso (1962) caught bouquets of rosy critical appreciation when it was rereleased to American theaters last winter both a buffoonish ethnic comedy and a disarming morality play, the movie had something to please every attentive filmgoer, in ways it might not have had in the '60s. What seems at first an arrow-straight comedy template (still echoing today; see Sweet Home Alabama, 2002) attains a merciless irony like a deepening Mediterranean suntan, until the final act repels the notion of comedy altogether. Even the title is ironic our hero, Antonio Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi), is as far as you can imagine from a movie mafioso, until, eventually, he becomes one anyway, as a matter of fate.
Antonio is a classic modern figure in the postwar world: Sicilian by birth that is, a hick he is now a white-collar Northerner, complete with workaholic techno job (an efficiency expert in a Milan Fiat plant), urban manners, a beautiful blond Northern wife (Norma Bengell), and two blond children. He's been away from home long enough to idealize it, and so when he takes his family south to Sicily for his first extended vacation, he's practically drunk on idealizations of how beautiful, rustic, and loving his hometown and old peasant family are or were. Mafioso's comedy emanates from the slippage between Antonio's dreams and the Sicilian reality: the village is a slope-headed mess of spite, ignorance, over-eating, and violence. Coming into town, Antonio observes an old-school funeral party, and he's revved up to share this pageant-of-life moment with his family when the cause of death is explained: "Two pistol shots!" Like Chevy Chase on holiday, Antonio doesn't bat an eye; "OK, let's go!" he instantly rejoinders, gunning the engine.
Lattuada's satirical razor is sharp and freely swung, mocking Sicily savagely, down to Antonio's sister's impossibly heavy mustache "So beautiful!" he cries obliviously to the matter-of-fact knife fight started between two withered octogenarians over a patch of land. Or is the film deriding Northern stereotypes of Sicilians or both? Certainly, because it was 1962 and no one had yet been thoroughly Godfather-ized, the portrayal of the village's local Don, and the worship he receives from everyone in sight, including Antonio, couldn't have been a broad cultural swipe, but rather a realistic gloss on what locals knew to be the truth about Sicilian life. Elsewhere, and even in northern Italy, the Mafia was only a matter of the occasional headline and the random criminal endeavor. The screenwriters (among them filmmaker-to-be Marco Ferreri) even named Antonio after a real gangster Gaetano Badalamenti who soon after the film's release would become a caporegime. Entrusted by his Fiat-factory boss in Milan with a package to deliver to the Don, Antonio unknowingly volunteers himself for "family business," but exactly how much he actually knows, or suspects, is always a tantalizing conundrum.
While the dusty, backwards village itself physically conjures memories of both Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964, where Italian poverty stood in, purposefully, for ancient-times Judea) and Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us (1999, where the mountain hamlet held more mysteries than were ever resolved), Mafioso's focus rarely detours from Antonio, who is nothing if not a man caught between two extremes two cultures, two eras, two ideas of himself, two ethical measures. In the beginning the conflicted pressure of re-entering the Sicily he once knew and had escaped from practically makes him implode his Energizer-bunny gaiety stands in sharp relief against the stoicism of the locals. (His crone-like mother, whom Antonio cannot accurately pick from a crowd of identical old Sicilian hags, doesn't utter a word for several days of her son's visit.) Tellingly, we never learn anything about Antonio's life prior to heading north as a young man. (His family don't seem to care enough about him to talk about it.) We catch little signals his shrugging acceptance of violence, his revelatory expertise as a marksman that suggest Antonio is a man with secrets, just as Sicily itself is seen as a sociopathic sub-civilization posing as a charmingly primitive Mediterranean enclave.
It's clear as Antonio is happily launched into preparations for the "favor" he'll do the Don which entails not only gunplay but a cross-Atlantic flight to New York, bundled into a shipping crate that he is not merely guileless, but somehow a natural-born "mafioso," that is, a member of the pack, without superego and ready to take orders. Which makes him, of course, the perfect industrial cog as well. But the nature of Lattuada's film as it gradually, absurdly, and then rather grimly, transitions from Sicily to a through-the-looking-glass journey to New York, is so offbeat that you begin to see it as a kind of symbolic passage, a reverse coming-of-age odyssey in which Antonio, whose acquiescent wonderland reactions suggest that he may think he's dreaming, undergoes the trial of the modern Western man, defining oneself as an alpha-provider in the New World but being hapless dragged, as a soldier or a slave, into the vicious demands of the old ways, the world of might-is-right and medieval brutality.
Sordi, with his Nicolas Cage eyes, feasts on every comic opportunity, and Mafioso is tirelessly funny (emerging from the crate in New York, Antonio doesn't ask any questions, just bolts for the men's room). But it has a strange and moral soul, and was certainly one of the first films to fully posit the Dostoyevskian thought that killing poisons the killer. The Godfather took that notion and ran with it, just as it took the bridge-crossing-to-the-hit imagery and the mundaneity of slaughter in the barber shops and restaurants of the city's outer boroughs, as well as the now-familiar vision of Sicily as a sun-drenched paradise pockmarked with corpses. Of course, Lattuada's is the mirror image of Michael Corleone's voyage, beginning in the old country and landing, as if in a hallucination, in America.
Producer: Antonio Cervi
Director: Alberto Lattuada
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona, Marco Ferreri, Age Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli
Cinematography: Armando Nannuzzi
Art Direction: Carlo Egidi
Music: Piero Piccioni
Film Editing: Nino Baragli
Cast: Alberto Sordi (Antonio Badalamenti), Norma Bengell (Marta), Gabriella Conti (Rosalia), Ugo Attanasio (Don Vincenzo), Cinzia Bruno (Donatella), Katiusca Piretti (Patrizia), Armando Tine (Dr. Zanchi), Lilly Bistrattin (Dr. Zanchi's secretary)
by Michael Atkinson