Friday, March 07, 2008

Mob Mentality at the Movies

The nearly concurrent DVD releases of Alberto Lattuada's "Mafioso - Criterion Collection, and Marco Turco's "Excellent Cadavers," from First Run, make for a discerningly complementary treatment of the Sicilian Mafia as an indestructible force of evil. Americans have adopted mobsters as cultural house pets — as urban outlaws, dapper rogues, or House of Atreus incendiaries, depending on one's metaphorical preference. These two films — a dark comedy from 1962 featuring a perfectly judged performance by Alberto Sordi and a documentary from 2005 — go beyond catchphrases and soap opera to capture the chilling reality of an institution that appears to be as secure as the church, even though for a long time it was hardly acknowledged at all.

Mafia movies, like mafia prosecutions, were redefined in the 1950s by two commissions. First, the 1951 televised Kefauver Committee hearings concluded that organized crime existed, despite suspiciously stubborn denials by the FBI. The stars of the proceedings were Frank Costello's hands. The mob boss had somehow convinced the committee and the broadcaster not to show his face. A better symbol for the manipulations of an invisible puppeteer could not have been invented.

The cinematic response was instantaneous, as a slew of films appeared about the secret empire. Unlike the crime films of the 1930s, which focused on individuals, these films looked at a larger enterprise: "The Enforcer," "The Big Heat," "On the Waterfront (Special Edition)," "The Big Combo," "The Miami Story," "The Phenix City Story," "The Brothers Rico," "Chicago Confidential," "New York Confidential," "The Garment Center," and dozens more. They often avoided ethnicity, steered clear of the word "mafia," and usually ended with Mr. Big taking a fall. "I'm glad what I done to you," Terry Malloy chided Johnny Friendly in "On the Waterfront" — all it took was a stand-up guy. Even so, J. Edgar Hoover persisted in characterizing the mob as a chimera, unlike the bank robbers he had dispatched in the happier days of the Depression. Even Hoover had to moonwalk, however, after the mob bosses convened their own 1957 commission in Apalachin. Local police intruded, sending made men scurrying into the nearby woods. Denial was no longer an option, though it was the Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics, not the FBI, which soon compiled the first bestiary of connected men, published only last year as "Mafia."

This time the cinematic response was more violent and morally baroque, animated by realism that the Production Code could not entirely repeal. Richard Widmark (in 1947's "Kiss of Death") and Eli Wallach (in 1958's "The Lineup") played psychopaths who push wheelchair-bound seniors to their deaths. In the first film, the victim is a harmless woman, and the death of the predator restores social order; in the second, the victim is a kingpin, and the death of the hit man who pushes him over the railing of a skating rink resolves nothing. Richard Wilson's "Pay or Die" (1960) tells the true story of the fearless Italian-American cop who visited Sicily in 1909 seeking information to expose the secret society. He was promptly assassinated: end of story.

The Italian film industry, which had ignored the Mafia to this point, now began to acknowledge its barbarity, if somewhat obliquely. In the late 1950s, Francesco Rosi began his career by exploring the rituals of organized crime in "La Sfida" (shot in Naples for fear of offending Sicilians) and the bumbling "I Magliari" (starring Sordi). He found a voice of his own in "Salvatore Giuliano" (1962), using documentary meticulousness to trace the rise of a mob chieftain in the postwar years as the Allies cemented a Mafia-government coalition — a theme briefly explored in "Excellent Cadavers."

That same year, Sicily's underground was further breached in two comedies set in the present: Pietro Germi's flat-out hilarious "Divorce Italian Style," in which the rule of the dons is a given and pandemic bloodlust is played out in a burlesque of marital honor; and Lattuada's "Mafioso," in which the comic elements are, at first, disarmingly unclear. If "The Godfather" is a bloody epic that leaves residual recollections of star-powered romance, nostalgia, and wit, "Mafioso" is a comedy of manners that leaves the chill of unappeased horror. It drolly meanders for half its running time, a beautifully played character study without urgent direction. The viewer is encouraged to feel superior to the na├»ve Nino, until Nino and viewer alike are placed in the dark — a plane's cargo hold, en route to New York to commit a crime for which neither he nor we are quite prepared.

Lattuada makes clear from the beginning that Mafia tentacles reach well into the north. Nino has lived in Milan for eight years as an efficiency expert in a factory. He now chooses to take a long-delayed vacation, bringing his wife and children to meet his family in his native Sicily. His boss gives him a package to be hand-delivered to Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), which turns out to be an American-made golden heart that will adorn the church's Madonna and also contains coded instructions for a death warrant.

Nino is a fish out of water (except in the zone afforded by his family and by vanity), never more so than when shipped to New York, oily and overdressed — though he briefly feels at home as he looks up at the astonishing skyscrapers and sees a poster for a Sophia Loren film. The favor Don Vincenzo demands of him is filmed as a dream, a few hours on the other side of the looking glass. Nino and we know virtually nothing of his target, but the deed is compromising all around. "Mafioso" is built like a snare, supported by the sumptuous photography of Armando Nannuzzi and a wonderfully mottled score by Piero Piccioni, who mixes idioms and underscores ill omens with electrical rumbling.

"Excellent Cadavers" is not for the faint of heart or the cheery of disposition. It argues that the Mafia, which, during a two-year period in the early 1980s, left 300 slaughtered bodies on the streets of Palermo, could be eradicated. It almost was, according to Mr. Turco, when two magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, combined to launch the maxi-trial that placed more than 400 Mafia suspects before a judge and, despite interference by the Italian government, ultimately won convictions. The reprisals were swift. In 1992, Falcone and Borsellino were murdered, months apart, in explosions that observers likened to nuclear blasts. Silvio Berlusconi's government then undid much of what had been accomplished, even dismantling the witness protection program. Today the mafia is said to extort tributes from 80% of Sicilian businesses, to say nothing of its role in the international heroin trade.

Much of the archival footage in "Excellent Cadavers" is astonishing, including dozens of photographs by Letizia Battaglia, who appears on camera at 70 and recalls the almost daily calls to various murder sites. Her pictures of bodies surrounded by grieving widows and curious onlookers are horrific; in one, a severed head is set upon a car seat. So much of the film is admirable that its missteps are especially regrettable. Mr. Turco's film is based on a book by Alexander Stille, who is inexplicably on camera throughout, lugging a shoulder bag, occasionally pretending to read or write. He also serves as narrator and lacks authority in the role. He doesn't even explain the title, which is mob slang for the bodies of political officials.
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Yet the film tells a complicated story, involving a great many names (First Run ought to have provided a dramatis personae); it is coherent and dramatically sound. Falcone and Borsellino emerge as genuine heroes. Asked if he is afraid, Falcone, who looks disconcertingly like Alberto Sordi, says, "Living with one's fear, without being conditioned by it, that's courage. Otherwise, it's not courage but recklessness." "Excellent Cadavers" is one of the saddest films I've ever seen.

Thanks to Gary Giddins. Mr. Giddins is the author of "Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books."

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