Saturday, March 24, 2007

Alle Origini della Mafia

Origins of the Mafia, also known as Alle Origini della Mafia, is a fairly engrossing five-part English-Italian TV co-production from 1976. If you're like me, you've watched just about every mob movie that's come down the pike, but it's rare to see one that examines the very beginnings of the Mafia, back in Sicily, over four hundred years ago. I understand that some historians doubt a mediaeval start date for la Cosa Nostra, and I'm certainly no expert on Sicilian or mob history (like any good American, most of my history background comes from the movies). But the all-star Origins of the Mafia makes a pretty good case for its origins beginning during the mid-16th century.

Separated into five, 50 minute episodes that span over three hundred years of Mafia history in Sicily, Origins of the Mafia, in a straightforward, TV miniseries manner, details not only milestones in the organization, but more interestingly, gives the viewer background on what external forces and social conventions may have created the Sicilian culture that has allowed the Mafia to flourish for over four hundred years. Whenever I see The Godfather or The Godfather Part II, I always wonder who those Sicilian guys are, walking around with berets and shotguns, guarding their dons, on the huge Sicilians estates. How did the system of patronage, extortion, and violence start there? The Mafia, at least in modern movies, always seems to be this monolithic entity that just is, that exists without a start or stop. Origins of the Mafia does a rather nice job of giving the viewer the background necessary to appreciate all the other mob movies, while telling a good story on its own.

Episode One takes place in 1556, where the corrupt Gramignano family holds absolute power over the small island of Sicily, which is ruled at this time by Spain. Bartolomeo Gramignano (Lee J. Cobb), the head of the family, is an informer for the Ecclesiastic Court -- the Spanish Inquisition -- and as such, enjoys almost unlimited power, and is answerable only to the King of Spain, or his Envoy. The King's Envoy (Joseph Cotton), comes to Sicily to investigate the Gramignanos, particularly the crimes of Bartolomeo's son, Giuseppe (Claudio Camaso), a sadistic killer who terrifies the village. Unfortunately, the Envoy and his impetuous aid, Sebastian (Edward Albert), cannot find one witness who will testify against the Gramignanos. The Spanish Army captain (Renato Salvatori) has long given up trying to bring the crime family to justice, and now actively works with them to save his own neck. When Sebastian tries to protect a bride from being raped on her wedding night by Giuseppe, both he and the Envoy, despite the influence of their office, come to realize who the real power is in Sicily.

Episode Two sees Sicily, in 1785, controlled by the Bourbons of Naples. A crusading Viceroy, Caracciolo (Massimo Girotti), works to reform Sicily, but meets opposition on all sides. The aristocracy, such as Don Armando Della Morra (Mel Ferrer) despise him for trying to limit the power of their class, while the gilds, such as the bakery guild, hate him for trying break up their control of consumer prices. Further weakening the Viceroy's power is the reliance of the Sicilian people on private organizations such as the Beati Paolos (the "Beautiful Pauls"), who offer justice to the weak, but at a terrible price for those who go against the group. This episode tells the story of Angelo La Parma (Biagio Pelligra), a peasant who was unjustly imprisoned by Della Morra when he discovered that Della Morra killed his own brother, the true prince. Aided by Pietro (John McEnery), a nobleman who belongs to the Beati Paolos, Angelo joins the organization. When Della Morra tries to intervene in the murder of a baker who had threatened the influence of the guilds, he learns of the real power that controls 1785 Sicily.

Episode Three begins in 1835, when the Bourbons still control Italy. The jaded aristocracy, such as Baron Della Spina (Fernando Rey), employ tax collectors to not only gather money from the peasants that live off their vast estates, but to actually run the estates for the absentee landlords -- and to keep the peace with the oppressed peasants. These tax collectors have their own private armies of overseers and guards who exploit the peasants – and even the landlords if their power becomes great enough. Nicu Borello (Fausto Tozzi), steals Baron Della Spina's cattle, without his knowledge, and then presents them to the Baron, asking to take on the role of his tax collector. Spina agrees, and after twenty-five years of extortion and secret theft, Borello dies rich, and Spina dies penniless. Borello's son, Michele (Tony Musante) is now a powerful, wealthy merchant with ties to politicians and judges, while Spina's son, Antonio (Remo Girone), wastes away as an indolent gambler with a title and no money. As Garibaldi's forces move to take over Sicily, Michele and his own "mafia" wait to see the inevitable fall of the Bourbon aristocrats. Michele, now part of the emerging bourgeoisie, takes Spina's sister Barbara (Rejane Medeiros) as his wife, in a bid to gain respectability.

Episode Four finds Sicily, in 1861, now part of the Kingdom of Italy. But Garibaldi's promises of a peasant revolution have failed to come true. The peasants are not allowed to own the land they work on, and the government is powerless to enforce its own laws, particularly when the Mafia has such a strong hold on the populace. At the center, like a spider, lies Don Consalvo Saccone (Trevor Howard), who pulls the strings for all who come to him for help. Prefect Mieli (Giancarlo Sbragia), new from Italy, finds he doesn't understand the ways of the Sicilians, and unwisely lets Saccone in on a family secret. Marquis Tarcone (Massimo Serato), a sadistic, wealthy landowner, refuses to work with the peasants who are organizing into an angry mob, led by Bernardino Campo (Tom Skerritt), who demands his right to own land and not be treated like a serf. La Monica (Spiros Focas), who is running for political office, is controlled as well by Don Saccone. As events lead to an inevitable tragic end, the only remaining constant is the power of the Mafia, under Don Saccone.

Episode Five opens in 1875, when the government of Italy first officially investigates the crimes of the Mafia in Sicily, which has become a national scandal. A senator (Amedeo Nazzari) is sent down to investigate the murder of an orange grower who was killed for undercutting the prices of other farmers – who are protected by the Mafia. A witness to the killing, Vincenzo Biscetta (Paolo Bonacelli), has been driven mad by the death of his own don, Don Antonio Mastrangelo (Renzo Montagnan). Don Antonio, who controlled the water source that flowed to fellow Don Felice Balsamo's (Claudio Gora) property, decides to buck the Mafia system and shut off the water to Don Balsamo's property. He is promptly killed, and his bodyguard, Nino Sciallacca (Tony Lo Bianco) is immediately charged with the crime. Vianisi (James Mason), a famous lawyer, is engaged by Don Antonio's widow, Rosa (Katherine Ross), to get Nino off. But why does she do that?

Working within the miniseries framework, Origins of the Mafia has the time to tie in several theories about how the Mafia began, as well as nicely detail the evolving social and political conditions that may have encouraged its growth. The first episode sets up the notion that Sicilians, long ruled by foreign powers, came to distrust anyone but other Sicilians, while they relied on their own to take care of their own, as well as dispense their own justice. Episode Two details the further retreat of Sicilians from foreign rule, as well as their reliance on secret societies to right wrongs within in their communities. Episode Three illustrates the failure of the aristocracy to address the peasants concerns, with the nascent Mafia stepping in to provide justice – while lining their own pockets and consolidating their own power – in the vacuum created by a distant government and an uncaring, dissipated, decadent gentry. Episode Four shows the newly middle class Mafia moving into the world of politics, providing the "juice" by buying politicians and keeping order – as long as it consolidates their power. And Episode Five shows the depth of the Mafia's hold over ordinary peasants, and their reach within every single transaction – whether business, political, or personal – in the lives of Sicilians.

Origins of the Mafia's miniseries format doesn't offer great "cinematic" moments that you're likely going to remember. It's isn't that kind of film. Storytelling comes first and last here; watching Origins of the Mafia is like diving into a really long, good book that, while not stylistically compelling, is dramatically most satisfying. It's a good yarn, plan and simple, and it's straight-ahead, flat TV style perfectly suits the material. Spectacular location shooting in Sicily aids enormously in recreating the historic atmosphere (it's apparent real interiors, not sets, were used as well). Where one might quibble is in the film's use of name Hollywood actors to anchor the various episodes. The Italian actors, of course, fit in perfectly. And while some of the American actors acquit themselves quite well (that fantastic, underrated actor Tony Musante is near-perfect in his role), others flounder (what the hell is Joseph Cotton doing here playing a Spaniard, and even more mind-boggling, Katherine Ross playing a vengeful Sicilian?). As well, the final episode, while benefitting from the presence of always marvelous James Mason (as an Italian?), doesn't fit in nearly as well as the previous episodes in detailing specific evolutions of the Mafia throughout Sicilian history. But it's a small point. The four and a half hour, two-disc Origins of the Mafia, directed in a clean, concise fashion by Enzo Muzii, is an absorbing, entertaining history lesson that moves confidently within its potboiler framework.

The DVD:

The Video:
The full-frame video image for Origins of the Mafia looks good, but some of the colors have gone a little muddy, a little faded. Dirt and scratches occasionally appear, but overall, it's fair transfer.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix is adequate, but unspectacular. This is a dialogue-driven production, but it would have been nice to hear that Nino Rota score in a stronger mix. No subtitles or close-captioning are available.

The Extras:
There are no extras for Origins of the Mafia.

Final Thoughts:
If you love Mafia movies, Origins of the Mafia is necessary viewing, if only for the background you can get on the mob's beginnings in Sicily. But even if you're not in the mood for a history lesson, Origins of the Mafia is a leisurely paced, confident, cleanly executed TV miniseries that tells five absorbing Mafia-related stories. I recommend Origins of the Mafia.

Thanks to Paul Mavis

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