Sunday, April 3, 2011

#424: Mafioso

(Alberto Lattuada, 1962)

Mafioso is a supremely interesting movie, a comedy of manners mixed with a unique perspective on the mafia narrative. As a depiction of Sicily in the early 1960s, the film is a fascinating look at the relationship between north and south in Italy, and the social and political climate which allowed the mafia to flourish. It's also a sweetly funny family comedy of culture clash and a moving portrait of an average man caught up in his responsibilities.

The film begins with Nino making the rounds on the factory floor where he manages workers. Nino is middle management and loving it, the kind of guy for whom a beautiful wife, two kids, and a steady slot at a company has given him everything he has ever wanted in life. But when he takes a vacation to his hometown in Sicily, he must contend with his family clashing with his Northern wife and a much more sinister proposal from the local kingpin.

The scenes with Nino and his family are both funny and illuminating. In much the same way that most Americans group all Latinos together - ignoring the fact that international borders, skin color, and socioeconomic background make the political landscape in America south of the US far from unified - it is easy to forget that even a country as small as Italy has enormous cultural variations within its borders. The most significant of these is the division between the lighter, more European northerners and the darker, more Mediterranean southerners. This is especially true of Sicily, where many residents to this day consider themselves Sicilian far before they consider themselves Italian. Despite the fact that we never leave interiors in Nino's Milan, the contrast between his adult home and his childhood one is stark: the modern Nino and his family have been thrown into old Italy. Everyone knows everyone else in old Italy, and Nino's family stares at his wife when she lights up a cigarette - not because it bothers them, but because they have never seen a woman smoke before. As in every high/low cultural showdown, Nino's parents consider his wife a snob, while his wife considers them judgmental and mean. It's not a new dynamic, but seeing it come alive with such vivid characterizations and detail about a place as fascinating as mid-century Sicily makes it feel not just fresh, but wholly unique.

The mafia element of the film is just as interesting. Any depiction of the crime syndicate which originated in Italy has the spectre of The Godfather hanging over its head, so it's impossible to know what it was like to see Mafioso a decade before Marlon Brando stuck cotton balls in his mouth. But Mafioso reminded me less of that film and more of some of the most enjoyable subplots from The Sopranos. Many of the most interesting moments in the show came from characters who were outside of Tony's inner circle, the men and women who struggled to adjust to the inevitability of the mafia invading their lives. It is constantly clear in Mafioso that it would be impossible to avoid the don of Nino's town, that in fact everything that is done is informed by his presence. Despite the fact that (spoiler) we watch Nino kill someone in cold blood, we feel only sympathy for him because the possibility that he could have refused seems by this point of the movie to be almost absurd and completely out of the question.

Much like Gomorrah argued that the Comorra syndicate infiltrated every aspect of life in Naples, Mafioso is a heartfelt depiction of the far reach of the mafia into every element of Sicilian life to the point where their very identity is informed by it. The connection between the two stories - the seemingly antiquated day to day of small town Sicily and the global conspiracy of the island's criminal network - might seem tenuous if it wasn't for the way Lattuada uses humor and ultimately tragedy to inextricably link the two, just as he links the international reach of Nino's mafia past to his industrial present. For Sicilians, and perhaps for everyone, it is impossible to outrun your identity.

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