A&E // 1976 // 260 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // March 27th, 2007
"It is true: the devil is never as black as he is painted." -- The Envoy (Joseph Cotton)
When you think of the Mafia, you think of the movies. The Godfather series. Goodfellas. The Sopranos. You think of big Sicilian goombas chowing down on pasta, brushing a little dust off their custom-fitted suits, then whacking a government snitch or two. Most real Mafia guys, what few there are left these days, probably model their behavior after the movies, rather than the other way around.
And we love our mobsters and their operatic triumphs and tragedies. So A&E thinks you might be interested in Origins of the Mafia, the story of the rise of a great crime family of Sicily. Since this is A&E, a respectable cable network, you might expect a well-researched documentary (or docudrama) presentation. What the packaging for this two DVD set does not tell you (but what you might deduce from the top billing of the late Joseph Cotton) is that Origins of the Mafia is actually a 1976 Italian miniseries.
While not a conspicuously low-budget affair, like, say, an Italian sword-and-sandal fantasy, you will notice the abundance of medium shots (standard for television staging) and post-synched audio, especially for the Italian cast members. The first episode, which features most of the big names you would recognize, is set in the 16th century. A corrupt official working for the Spanish occupation forces in Sicily, Bartolomeo Gramignano (Lee J. Cobb, 12 Angry Men), uses his bullying sons to enforce his will on the locals. A Spanish envoy (Joseph Cotton, visibly uncomfortable in his stuffy costume) shows up to battle the Gramignano family. Edward Albert (Butterflies Are Free) plays a heroic young officer with a formidably dimpled chin, which he deploys in the service of good. The locals are ambivalent, unsure of whether they want to be dominated by domestic bullies or foreign ones. War of a sort is declared between these adversaries, but since nobody has machine guns yet, the violence is pretty much limited to poisoning the local well.
The performances tend to be broad, in the style of television "epics" of the period. There are long stretches in which nothing particularly dramatic happens, and the villains are never either entrancing or vicious enough that we know whether to love or hate them. The scripts don't help: the mobsters are kept offstage for long periods of time in favor of the "crimebusters" (or corrupt leaders, if that episodes' incarnation of the mafia are the good guys) working against them. This means that we don't learn what sort of people they really are. Maybe director Enzo Muzii and his writing team figured that the recent Godfather movies had given the Mafia enough time to speak for itself. In addition, the long time scale of the story (400 years) means that we never get much time to warm up to any characters -- or even to the history of a single family. Subsequent tales after the Gramignano story feature a similar parade of American B-listers backed with an Italian supporting cast and crew:
* Episode 2
Mel Ferrer (Lili) plays Armando Della Mora, an 18th century prince who has garnered so much hatred among the locals that they have formed a secret brotherhood to destroy him. Bear in mind that this secret group (more Masonic than criminal) is not technically the Mafia, as narrator Richard Johnson reminds us. There is some boar hunting and lots of powdered wigs, but not much mob action.
* Episode 3
We jump ahead to the mid-19th century, during the Risorgimento. Fernando Rey (That Obscure Object of Desire) is a butterfly-collecting baron sucking the wealth out of the local landowners; the Borello family are tax collectors who double as enforcers. Eventually, the Borellos have all the money and power, and new boss Michele Borello (Tony Musante, Toma) must lead the young Mafia through the political turmoil of Italian unification.
* Episode 4
In the aftermath of unification, the Mafia gains a foothold in Sicilian politics. Tom Skerritt (Alien) is an idealistic but handsome peasant whose bushy mustache apparently offends the local militia, whose own mustaches are noticeably thinner and less manly. That, and he is leading a peasant uprising. Don Saccone (Trevor Howard, Mutiny on the Bounty) tries to use the peasant unrest to manipulate an upcoming election -- and you've seen enough mob movies to whose side a guy with the title of "Don" is on.
* Episode 5
James Mason (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) is a stalwart Italian prosecutor trying to expose the Mafia at the end of the 19th century. His star witness: the widow (Katharine Ross, The Stepford Wives) of a businessman whacked by the local kingpin. The feisty widow takes charge and solves the case. I guess we are meant to link up the timeline (and the narrators remark that the Mafia is about to "spread beyond the shores of Sicily") at this point with the 20th century adventures of the Corleone family, since those would be fresh in the minds of viewers in 1976.
Origins of the Mafia is too thinly spread to make a convincingly dramatic series, but too mired in television dramatic structure and style to feel like authentic history. Much of the series is tedious and slow-moving, but the climactic punch of each episode (usually involving somebody getting killed or beaten up as the Mafia exacts retribution) is bloodless, both literally and emotionally, especially compared to the movies this miniseries seeks to emulate. Yet the story pleasantly rolls along, offering glimpses of interesting actors trying to make the most of their few minutes of screen time. There is plenty of lovely location footage of Sicily. There are some pedigreed names associated with the production: photography by Giuseppe Rotunno (who worked with Visconti and Fellini) and music by Nino Rota. But in the end, it is a '70s television miniseries -- for all the good and ill that label brings.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 260 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated