An FBI agent from Philadelphia once tried to explain the difference between the Sicilian Mafia and its American Cosa Nostra cousin, both of which were operating in the City of Brotherly Love in the 1980s.
The agent, since retired, had first been assigned to track suspected Sicilian heroin dealers operating in the area. They were part of what came to be known as the Pizza Connection, an international band of drug traffickers using pizzerias as fronts.
Later the agent was shifted to a unit that built a case against the locals.
It was a lot easier, he said, to gather evidence and prosecute the American gangsters. And by way of explanation, he told a story about a day when he had a Sicilian Mafioso under surveillance in Philadelphia. He followed the mobster as he drove some 45 miles from his home along an extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The mobster pulled into a rest stop, went to a pay phone. Made a call. Spent less than a minute on the phone. Then got back into his car and drove 45 miles home.
There was no way anyone could wiretap that conversation. No way anyone would know what it was about.
“The Sicilians,” the agent said, “are very serious about what they do.”
We see a lot of that in Mafioso, director Alberto Lattuada’s dark comedy that says so much about both the criminal organization and the fascinating island of Sicily that gave birth to it.
In a 2010 article in the Daily Beast, Martin Scorsese listed the film as one of the 15 gangster movies that had the most profound effect on him as a writer and director. He cited Mafioso as “one of the best films ever made about Sicily.”
And it is impossible to understand the Mafia without understanding Sicily.
Mafioso appears to be a simple story, told directly. In fact, it is multilayered and full of subtle twists and turns.
Antonio “Nino” Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi) is a native Sicilian who has built a successful career as a supervisor at an auto plant in Milan. Highly efficient and organized, he puts the lie to the stereotype of southern Italians as lazy underachievers.
After 15 years, he has planned a vacation in which he, his northern-born wife Marta (Norma Bengell) and their two young daughters will travel to Calamo, the Sicilian town where he was born. It will be the first time his wife and children have met his family.
Marta becomes the voice of modern Italy, as she asks questions and comments on the people she meets and what she sees. In many ways, the visit is a step way back in time for a modern Italian woman.
As they drive through the village in a taxi, they happen upon a party gathered around an open coffin and a corpse. It is, her husband explains, the way things are done in Sicily. Friends and relatives have come together to see the departed off.
“It’s nothing,” he tells his wife and daughter.
“A man died. His friends are throwing a party for him.”
Then, leaning out the car window, he asks one of the men at the party, “How’d he die?”
The man, holding a plate full of food, casually replies, “Two bullets.”
Welcome to Sicily.
From there, Mafioso heads in two directions.
Marta overcomes a cool reception and wins the hearts of her in-laws while falling in love with the beauty and slower pace of life in Calamo. Helping her sister-in-law Rosalia (Gabriella Conti) get rid of her moustache goes a long way toward thawing the familial ice. Modern depilatory creams and lotions were not in vogue in the village. Rosalia goes from ugly duckling to beauty queen after a simple treatment, leading her brother to quip, “You’re like porcelain. Smooth. White. Take my advice. Marry before your moustache grows again.”
While Marta’s “miracle work” speaks to the naïveté of the village, Nino reconnects with a different Sicily. After getting back in touch with old friends, he finds himself faced with the obligation to repay an old debt to Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), the local Mafia head and most respected man in town. The debt, not surprisingly, can be repaid only by providing a special service, which Don Vincenzo has only hinted at during his discussions with Antonio.
“Don Vincenzo, what is it that I’m doing?” Nino asks.
“What are you doing?” says the Don. “Something very important. But if you wish . . . you can say no. Do you say no?”
No, of course, isn’t really an option. And Nino is well aware of that.
An elaborately planned hunting trip that will explain his absence for two days is organized so that Nino can be hidden in a large crate and shipped to New York City, where he carries out a hit. He is then recrated and flown back to Sicily.
No one is the wiser.
The Mafia, clearly, is serious about what it does.
The Village Voice, in a review when the film was reissued in 2007 for American audiences, called Mafioso “The Godfather’s Godfather.” Not a bad description.
The movie ends with Nino and his family back in Milan. At work again at the auto plant, he returns a pen that he had mistakenly taken from a coworker on the day he left for his vacation. The coworker, touched by his honesty, says, “If everyone was like you, it would be a better world.”
Don Vincenzo, we can assume, feels the same way. But, in typical Sicilian fashion, we can only assume. Most of what is thought is never said.
HIT: The feel for life in Sicily is captured in several small scenes and moments. Marta, for example, begins to smoke a cigarette after she and her family have been treated to plate after plate of food during their first day at the family home. Everyone stops to look.
She assumes, she tells her husband, that they are surprised to see a woman smoking, adding that she enjoys a cigarette after a meal.
But that’s not it, he explains. The food they have eaten was only the appetizers. Several family members then bring out plates full of pasta and other delicacies as the feast continues.
Anyone who ever visited relatives in Sicily can relate. The touch was perfect.
MISS: For those who insist on knowing all the hows and whys, the trip to New York begs several questions, not the least of which is how difficult it would have been to survive the flight in a crate. Likewise, it is never clearly explained why the hit has to be carried out. But while those unanswered questions may count as negatives for some viewers, if you accept the mystery of the Mafia, which Mafioso tries to capture, then there is no need to know.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “If you crossed Meet the Parents with The Godfather and filmed it 45 years ago in Italian, you might come close to Mafioso, a black-and-white gem from 1962.”—G. Allen Johnson (on the 2007 release of the film in the United States), San Francisco Chronicle
REALITY CHECK: Alberto Sordi’s character is named Antonio Badalamenti. It was an interesting choice for a surname and you have to wonder if Lattuada and writers Rafael Azcona and Bruno Caruso were playing with fire. Gaetano Badalamenti was a real-life Mafia figure who headed an organization based in his hometown of Cinisi, not unlike the town in which most of the movie is set.
By the 1970s, Badalamenti was heading the Mafia Commission in Sicily as the capo di tutti capi, boss of bosses, during one of the most violent underworld periods of Mafia history. In the late 1980s he was convicted of being part of the infamous Pizza Connection, a Mafia heroin ring that generated hundreds of millions of dollars. The organization stretched from Sicily, through South America and into the United States. He was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison following his conviction in New York in 1987. He died in 2004.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Easy to watch and enjoyable on several levels, it’s worth an occasional revisit.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Lattuada wrote or directed more than 40 movies in Italy, but may be best known to American audiences as the director of the 1985 television miniseries Christopher Columbus. The six-hour epic starred Gabriel Byrne in the title role. The all-star, international cast included Rossano Brazzi, Virna Lisi and Oliver Reed.
BEST LINE: “The lies of a woman, when softened by grace and courtesy, are always welcome,” says Mafia boss Don Vincenzo after a young women pays him a compliment. What he’s really saying is that lies are simply a part of life. You recognize them for what they are. You use them. Or you ignore them. Part of the Mafia code of living.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Hardly a blip, just the one shooting in New York. The violence, reflecting the tenets of the Mafia, is implied and always hovering in the background.
BODY COUNT: Two, if you include the funeral that Nino and his family happen upon, but only one on-screen murder.
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”