Mafioso

Alberto Lattuadas rediscovered black comedy masterwork of 1962, “Mafioso,” starring Alberto Sordi, will be re-released nationally by Rialto Pictures beginning January 2007.

I saw this Italian classic at the New York Film Festival, in October 2006, and was immediately taken by its inventive, effortless blending of comedy, tragedy, and sentiment, and the two cherished Italian traditions of neo-realism and farce, not to speak of the great performance of its great late star Alberto Sordi (better-known for his roles in Fellinis early works, “The White Sheik” and “I Vitelloni”)

Sordi plays a FIAT factory foreman in Northern Italy who returns to his hometown in Sicily, only to find himself unwittingly tapped as a hit man by the local Don. One of the darkest, most authentic, and funniest movies about the mob, “Mafioso” pre-dates Coppola's “The Godfather” pictures by a decade.

To recite the words of my mentor, the noted film critic Andrew Sarris, “Mafioso” is a grossly unappreciated directorial talent. The movie was given only a limited release in the U.S. in the 1960s, but it's been unseen since. Alberto Lattuada (1914-2005) was a key figure in the Italian cinema from the 1940s through the 1980s, though hes perhaps best known in the U.S. for giving Fellini his first directing assignment. The two shared credit on Fellinis first film, “Variety Lights” (1950), a collaboration that has overshadowed Lattuadas own considerable achievements.

“Mafioso” was written by Rafael Azcona, Marco Ferreri and the team of Age Scarpelli (Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli), whose credits include Sergio Leones “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Monicellis “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” and Pietro Germis “Divorce–Italian Style.”

Antonio Badalamenti (Sordi) is a Sicilian who has every reason to be pleased with himself. He has made good in Milan, where hes a foreman in a large FIAT plant and is happily married to Marta, a beautiful northern Italian blonde, with whom he has two lovely little blonde girls, Cinzia and Caterina.
And now Antonio looks forward to a long-deferred visit home to Sicily, where he wants to introduce his wife and children to his humble but proud peasant family. For Antonio, the family reunion could not be sweeter in its joyfully tearful hysteria, even if Marta's mainland habits and aloofness provoke silent disapproval from her traditionalist in-laws.

Upon arrival, he finds little that has changed: people still die of old age or bullet wounds, his unhappy sister still has her mustache and hairy arms, and his old friends, who haven't had his good luck, continue to laze about on the town square and beaches–except for those who have died, emigrated, gone to prison, or betrayed the notoriously rigid Sicilian code of honor.

Most of all there is still Don Vincenzo, the avuncular village notable and Mafia capo di capi to whom Antonio is indebted for making his new life in Milan possible. Antonio goes to pay his respects and to bring him a gift from his factory boss in Milan (a Sicilian by way of Trenton, New Jersey!): a solid gold sacred heart for the church altar.

Among the donors, one name is missing. Something must be done and Don Vincenzo thinks that Antonio may be just the man to do it. After all, Antonio boasts he's still a Sicilian who knows the meaning of Honor. More importantly, he has lost none of his eagle-eyed prowess with a gun. Antonio is invited to take a two-day hunting trip. The morning of the hunt, Antonio is
puzzled when his father embraces him emotionally, as if he were going off to war.

Don Vincenzo asks him for a favor: just take a “long and short” trip to hand deliver a letter to a friend. It's an offer the still uncomprehending Antonio can't refuse. The rest of the plot cannot be told without spoiling the fun. Suffice it to say that he is sent to America to commit a murder and then return to his family and job in Milan as if nothing had happened.

Thematically, Lattuada chronicles Sicilian emigration in the context of rapid social change, analyzing the clash between modern customs and the more primitive code of conduct that relentlessly survives in an era of transition. It's a topic that several Italian directors, such as Visconti and Pietro Germi, have addressed themselves to.

As noted, Lattuada's ability to mix genres and deftly switch tones from comedy (satire, irony, and parody) to drama is remarkable. He slips easily from moments of high comedy to the mounting tension in the sequence where Antonio is flown to New York where he must perform the duties of a professional killer to repay his debt to the community godfather Don Vincenzo. This extended sequence demonstrates Lattuada's excellent use of architecture and mise-en-scne to portray the scene's emotional core.

A Short Mafioso Glossary

Much of the dialogue in “Mafioso” is spoken in Sicilian dialect, though toned down in order to be understood by the average Italian. Sordis character Nino speaks an overly-eloquent, almost pompous, Standard Italian when at home with his family in Milan, but reverts to his native Sicilian dialect when speaking among friends and family in his hometown. The language barrier is a major contributor to the alienation felt by his very Northern wife Marta.

At least three important words or phrases lose their forceful flavor in translation, so the Sicilian words are used in the subtitles.

BACIAMO LE MANI: literally, We kiss your hands–a salutation showing the highest respect for the recipient.

PICCIOTTO: slang for child or little man–or a Mafia enforcer. A picciotto donore (child of honor) is a picciotto who has distinguished himself in the ranks.

CORNUTO: literally, horned one or cuckold–a guy whose wife sleeps around. Never, ever call a Sicilian cornuto. Never.

Please memorize. All three expressions will pop up more than once in the subtitles.

Credits

Director: Alberto Lattuada
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona Marco Ferreri Agenore Incrocci & Furio Scarpelli (Age Scarpelli), based on a story by Bruno Caruso
Producer: Antonio Cervi
Executive Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Cinematography: Armando Nannuzzi
Art Director: Carlo Edigi
Editor: Nino Baragli
Music: Piero Piccioni

Running time: 99 minutes

Cast

Antonio Badalamenti (Nino): Alberto Sordi
Marta: Norma Bengell
Rosalia: Gabriella Conti
Don Vincenzo: Ugo Attanasio
Don Calogero: Francesco Lo Briglio
Don Liborio: Carmelo Oliviero
Cinzia: Cinzia Bruno
Caterina: Katiusca Piretti
Dr. Zanchi: Armando Tine
Dr. Zanchi's Secretary: Lilly Bistrattin
The Baroness: Michle Bailly
Drunken Man: Hugh Hurd

End note:

Hugh Hurd was an African-American actor who had co-starred in “Shadows”, John Cassavetes 1959 debut feature.

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