On a recent trip to Italy, Judge Paul Pritchard was asked by the local Don to perform a hit. Unable to refuse he chose Starship's 1987 hit, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now."
Our review of 10 Years Of Rialto Pictures: Criterion Collection, published November 12th, 2008, is also available.
"But if you wish…you can say no. Will you say no?"
The best Mafia movie you never heard of.
Facts of the Case
Mafioso is the story of Antonio Badalamenti, Nino to his friends and family. Having for years failed to take any real time off work, Nino finally decides it's time to have a well-earned break, and take his wife and two daughters on a two-week vacation from industrial Milan to the calmness of his homeland of Sicily. Before leaving he is asked by a colleague and fellow Sicilian if he would personally deliver a package to Don Vincenzo, the local godfather who everyone in Nino's hometown knows and loves.
Having not been back to Sicily in over eight years, Nino sees the vacation as an opportunity for his wife and children to meet his family and for him to get back in touch with his roots. Of course, his wife, Marta, is very much a modern woman and, as such, is used to the sophistication of big-city life and struggles to adapt to Sicilian ways; his family aren't particularly taken by her either.
Always maintaining a wide-eyed enthusiasm, Nino does his utmost to smooth things over between his families, but unbeknownst to him a far greater problem lies ahead. Don Vincenzo has an offer to make Nino, but is it one Nino can refuse?
One of the great advantages of writing for DVD Verdict is being able to view films I otherwise might never have heard of. While some of these titles prove to be worthy of their lack of exposure, there are those that make me question just how they aren't widely acclaimed as being the masterpieces they truly are and a benchmark for others to aim for. Released in 1962, Mafioso is a film that I, and it would seem many, have been completely unaware of, in large part because the movie hasn't been seen since its original 1964 theatrical run in the States. Thanks to the Criterion release of Alberto Lattuada's classic, that will hopefully change and the film will get the widespread acclaim it deserves.
Now, there are two words in the previous paragraph that are handed out all too often to films unworthy of such acclaim: masterpiece and classic. While I know it's very easy to get caught up in the moment and make exuberant statements minutes after watching a film, I can safely say, without hesitation or fear of regret, that Mafioso is worthy of such accolades. Truly, this is masterful filmmaking from director Alberto Lattuada working with an exemplary screenplay from writers Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona, Agenore Incrocci, and Furio Scarpelli.
The son of composer Felice Lattuada, the young Alberto had originally trained to be an architect, yet always maintained a deep love of film. Having already helped start Italy's first film archive, Lattuada eventually began making his own movies. Working with Fellini on Variety Lights, Lattuada revealed his real talent to the world and also offered a theme that would run through Mafioso and other movies he would go on to make, that which he would call his main theme: the isolation of the individual, attempting to pursue a glimmer of happiness in the face of society's opposing pressures to conform.
Beginning in the Milanese car factory where he serves as foreman, we first meet Nino as, stopwatch in hand speaking with a tone of authority, he instructs one of the workers on the exact timing required to produce the best results from his work. Racing from factory floor to office, Nino is every bit the personification of the industrialized northern Italian. He rushes home, past the imposing architecture and street noise of the big city, and we eventually get to meet Nino's family: his wife Marta and two young daughters, Cinzia and Caterina. Sticking to a rigid schedule to ensure they get to Sicily as early as possible, the Badalementis are a hive of activity as they finalize their packing before heading off to the train station which will take them to the ferry port.
It's when the Badalementis are on the ferry crossing to Sicily, that Nino's roots begin to show. While his wife shows sorrow as she watches Italy "fade away," Nino is like a child at Christmas, looking across the waters as his beloved homeland draws ever closer; a weight has been lifted from his shoulders and his face no longer wears the seriousness it had when we first met him in the film's opening. His enthusiasm is infectious and, though we can clearly see from the first scene that he shares with his wife and children that he dearly loves them, we can see that work and the pace of life in Milan mean he doesn't get the time to relax with them that he yearns for. Finally, able to shed his professional demeanor, Nino is at long last able to be himself. That his happiness is to be short-lived, that his enthusiasm will be crushed so greatly by the time the closing credits roll, adds a sense of sadness to these scenes on repeated screenings that is never once considered on the initial viewing.
Before the film walks the darker path that Act Three throws up, we are treated to something of a culture-clash comedy, as Nino's wife, Marta, born and raised in Milan, finds herself at odds with Nino's family and their customs. From her look of bemusement upon discovering the family's best furniture located outside on the terrace, to causing uproar by lighting up a cigarette after believing the family meal to be over (in reality she had only completed the appetizer), Marta cannot catch a break. With Nino's parents barely concealing their dislike of her and openly admitting they find her to be "stuck up" and a "snob," Lattuada ably demonstrates the class divide between the poor South and the prosperous North of Italy. For her part Marta, initially at least, finds Nino's family to be a backward lot, and has no time for their loyalty to Don Vincenzo, who they all hold in such high regard, yet who she sees as nothing more than a gangster. Her infuriation grows further upon realizing Nino shares their love for the Don, dropping family activities at a moment's notice should Don Vincenzo request an audience with him. All the while Nino is trying to build bridges between his two families and cover the cracks that are there for all to see.
Don Vincenzo's influence over the town is demonstrated early on in a conversation between Nino and his father during a family meal. Playing catch-up, Nino asks for the latest on his old friends, when he asks about his friend Filo the table goes silent. "Dead?" Nino asks, "He dug his own grave," his father replies. Marta, unaware of what this means, questions this and learns that Filo had betrayed his friends, or as Nino's father puts it, "Got into politics, bought himself a motorbike, and began showing off. Screw him!" Nino immediately understands this and, upon meeting Filo shortly afterwards, completely blanks him, as does everyone else. Allegiance with the Don is paramount for those wishing to live in the town, failure to comply resulting in social pariah status…or worse. Slowly but surely, the film begins to reveal its more sinister underbelly.
Through a handful of meetings between himself and Nino, Don Vincenzo begins to slowly exert his influence over Nino. Helping Nino and his family in a land dispute, Don Vincenzo gets exactly what he is after when a grateful Nino announces, "If you ever should need me, just say the word and I'm at your command." A small, but telling look from the Don to one of his henchmen hints at the size of the favor he will ask in return. Sure enough, the film begins to take a new direction as Don Vincenzo, his men, and, startlingly, even his own family begin to groom Nino for the role they have in mind for him.
Now, I'm sure there are many of you who will see Mafioso while shopping for DVDs, read the blurb on the back of the case, notice that it's in black-and-white and in Italian, with subtitles no less, and put it straight back down. I mean it's going to be some pretentious drivel, isn't it? Well, to those of you suspecting this, I'll let you in on a secret, throughout watching Mafioso I was reminded of another film about a man taking his family on holiday: National Lampoon's Vacation. Sure, Mafioso possesses a darker edge and doesn't resort to some of the more lowbrow comedy employed by the Griswold family, but the similarities are there for all to see. Some similarities are actually startling; while their taxi stops by a funeral party, Nino, excited to be back in his homeland, points out to his family who are not used to such customs, that this is a way of paying respect to the deceased. Showing compassion, Nino asks one of the mourners how the deceased had died:
Mourner: "Two bullets"
It almost perfectly mirrors the "Roll 'em up!" scene in National Lampoon's Vacation. Nino's family also shares some traits with the Griswolds' relatives; though none are quite as moronic as good old Eddie, they are often just as bizarre.
The cast is, without exception, perfect. Norma Bengell as Nino's wife Marta is given a difficult role, one that could easily come over as "stuck up," as Nino's parents see her. Instead Bengell instills her with warmth; we find ourselves seeing Nino's family through her eyes and mostly sharing her bemusement. In a small but important role Ugo Attanasio, as Don Vincenzo, displays great range, going from a kindly old man looking after his friends to a cold, frightening villain when the need arises. The star of the show is Alberto Sordi as the loveable Nino. His desperate attempts to keep everyone happy ensure viewers take Nino to their hearts, even when the realization that the life he left behind is perhaps not as idyllic as he remembered, his positive attitude is resolute. Sordi's expressive face is able to raise a belly laugh one minute and, in the film's shocking final scenes, sadness, pity, and fear, Nino is the heart of the film, the viewer's emotions tied in directly with his own. Sordi's excellent delivery means we go on the same roller coaster as Nino; come the film's end we have been battered by a spectrum of emotions.
The disc offers a near-immaculate picture, almost completely dirt and scratch free thanks to the restoration process, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer perfectly captures the beauty of cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi's vision. Detail remains high throughout and the image is consistently sharp. The monaural soundtrack is also flawless, and though when compared to modern movies with 7.1 loss-less audio tracks it falls short, when considered in terms of its age it scores highly.
Criterion has put together a decent selection of special features, especially considering the film's relative lack of recognition. The highlight of the set is an interview with director Alberto Lattuada from 1996. Also included is a booklet containing essays on the film which prove to be as interesting than the special features on the disc itself, if not more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is no such thing as a perfect film, but to find fault with Mafioso would be like arguing that the sky isn't the right shade of blue, or that, The Blue Whale isn't big enough.
The only thing I can legitimately see anyone taking issue with, is the film's final reel. The descent into much darker territory that has only been hinted at previously is shocking and may be too much for some to accept. Personally I loved it; it's a brave and stunning climax that completely blew me away.
The fact that this film has been overlooked for 46 years is truly a crime. As a comedy, a family drama, and a crime movie it hits the mark every time. Criterion has put out an excellent package that will hopefully bring this film to the attention of a wide audience.
Not guilty—and my verdict has nothing to do with the horse's head I found in my bed this morning.
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Scales of Justice
• Ritratti D'Autore, a 1996 Interview with Director Alberto Lattuada by Filmmaker Daniel Luchetti
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