Eleven years ago I went to a press screening at the Film Forum for the revival of “Mafioso”, a 1962 dark comedy directed by Alberto Lattuada. It was unlike any mafia film I had ever seen, either in the Scorsese/Coppola vein or comic fare like “Analyze This” and “Married to the Mob”.
It moved seamlessly from a satire on Sicilian customs in the village Calamo, which is dominated by a Godfather figure named Don Vincenzo, to the film’s climax when the main character, who had been visiting relatives in the village, was forced to carry out a hit on an American gangster–a total stranger to him. It was made clear to him by the gangster that if he did not follow orders, he and his family would be killed instead. As has been the case with the mafia going back to its origins in the 1860s, violence, extortion and comity are often mixed together. As Don Vito Corleone put it in “The Godfather”, “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse”.
The “mafioso” who is extorted into carrying out the hit is a foreman in an auto plant in Milan named Antonio Badalamenti who used vacation time to visit his home town for the first time since leaving it in his late teens. Back then, he was a mere picciotto (youth) who was part of Don Vincenzo’s gang but only involved with petty crimes. As a powerful mobster, Don Vincenzo has connections everywhere, including the human resources manager at the auto plant who is also from Calamo. If not for him, as Don Vincenzo reminds Badalamenti, he never would have had the job there in the first place. That favor requires one in return. As one of the best marksmen in Calamo when he lived there and someone totally unknown to the gangster he will be assassinating in New York, Badalamenti is the ideal hitman even if the thought of killing someone horrifies him—not to speak of the risk of being killed himself in the act or being arrested afterward.
The first hour or so of the film might remind you of the Ben Stiller’s “Meet the Parents” in which his urban and Jewish character Greg Focker, a male nurse, clashes comically with father-in-law Jack Byrnes, a CIA agent played by Robert De Niro. In the follow-up film, “Meet the Fockers”, Byrnes is just as appalled by his son-in-law’s parents, a couple of Jews bordering on stereotype played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand.
When Badalamenti shows up at his parent’s home in Calamo, they stare at his wife and two young daughters in disbelief. Hailing from Milan, the wife has blonde hair, unlike the swarthy Sicilians who look at her as if she was from another planet. It doesn’t help that the daughters inherited blonde hair from their mom. From the minute they settle in at the parents’ house, it is one culture clash after another, from his wife smoking a cigarette at the dining table to her general discomfort with the patriarchy that suffuses Calamo.
You only get a foretaste of the much darker conclusion of the film when Badalamenti and his father, a gaunt and toothless man, visit an elderly landowner who had offered a plot of farmland to the father for what seemed like a reasonable price. But once they arrive, the landowner has quadrupled the price on the basis that it benefits from an underground well. When he is pressed to prove that the water exists, the landowner asks them to follow him and the water expert who will back his claim. That expert turns out to be a monk with a dowsing stick. Infuriated by this con job, Badalamenti’s father lunges at the landowner and the two septuagenarians roll around the ground punching each other silly until his father draws a knife with the obvious intention of using it. It was this departure from the “Meet the Parents” farce that serves as a segue to the film’s brooding finale.
“Mafioso” is both grand entertainment as well as social commentary on the typical Mafia-ruled Sicilian village. Don Vincenzo is a fat man with bad teeth who starts off as a paternalistic figure but soon turns into what he has been lurking beneath the genteel manner all along, a monstrous thug who would be willing to kill Badalamenti, his wife, and their two young daughters if the hit was not carried out.
In doing a bit of research on the film at the time, I learned that the director Alberto Lattuada was an editor at an anti-fascist magazine launched in 1938 titled Corrente that somehow continued to publish during fascist rule. Apparently, Italy was somewhat less totalitarian than Germany. Wikipedia states that as an independent paper, Corrente was free from the directives of the GUF (University Fascist Group). However, it was closed on June 10, 1940, when Italy entered the war. It had become one of the major voices of antifascist culture in the late 1930s, “offering itself as a democratic alternative to the official guidelines of the Ministry of Popular Culture, and strongly criticizing the Novecento Italiano movement, the art of the regime and late Futurism.”
Even if Lattuada did not have the same worries as an anti-fascist in Germany, he did have to go into hiding in Milan in 1944.
After learning about the director’s leftist past, I concluded that one of the main reasons “Mafioso” differed from American films about the mafia was the inability of the Italian state to carry out a witch-hunt that blacklisted people like Lattuada and better-known directors who wore their Communist colors openly and proudly. That included Vittorio Da Sica, Luchino Visconti, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Gillo Pontecorvo. Perhaps if Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola had come out of a tradition in which Marxist ideas were commonplace, they would have been less susceptible to romanticizing the mafia.
I made a mental note to myself in 2007 to write a survey of Italian films made about the mafia but I never acted on it until recently when I had a chance to review a TV series titled “The Octopus” that aired from 1984 to 2001 at a time when grass-roots activism and police crackdowns on the mafia were at their height in Italy. I reviewed “The Octopus” for CounterPunch a few weeks ago as the first in a series in this survey. Consider this article as the second with at least another two in the works.
1962 was a bounty year for Italian films made about the Sicilian mafia by leftist directors. In addition to “Mafioso” that could easily be mistaken as a comic confection, there was Franceso Rosi’s “Salvatore Giuliano”, a film that Derek Malcolm described as “certainly the best film about the social and political forces that have shaped that benighted island.”
Salvatore Giuliano was a bandit born in 1922 who died from a bullet fired from the pistol of his second in command in 1950. He operated in the mountains near Montelepre, a town not far from Palermo, the largest city in Sicily and a stronghold of the mafia.
Although he only gets a brief mention in Eric Hobsbawm’s “Bandits”, it is consistent with the theme of the book, namely that banditry and peasant revolts can and do overlap going back to the days of Robin Hood. Indeed, Hobsbawm refers to Giuliano as the last true Robin Hood.
In 1943, the Allies had gained control of most of Italy but were not averse to continue using fascist bureaucrats and cops to keep the machinery of the state going, including crackdowns on the ubiquitous black market, especially in Sicily that had always challenged central rule. At one point, Giuliano, a black marketeer, was confronted by these authorities but stood his ground, shooting a cop to death after he was apprehended with bags of black market grain.
The cops then organized a dragnet in Montelepre but Giuliano retreated to the hills where he began recruiting a band of locals to fend off the cops. While his band never exceeded more than 20 fighters, they proved to be too elusive for the cops to capture. It was a combination of their knowledge of the mountainsides and the local fealty to omerta that helped them remain at liberty.
Despite the small numbers of combatants at his side, Giuliano’s reputation was so large that he was invited to become part of the resistance to the Italian state as part of a separatist movement toward the end of WWII. Given the class dominance of the mostly wealthy landowners who led the separatist movement, Giuliano managed to triangulate between the police, who followed the lead of the Sicilian bourgeoisie, and the poor peasants who saw him as a folk hero.
That reputation crashed and burned in 1947 when Giuliano’s men opened fire on a May Day rally organized by the Communist Party in Portella della Ginestra attended by hundreds of peasants. Although Rosi’s film does not try to come up with its own interpretation of why this happened, it offers up the possibility that he was acting under orders from the Carabinieri, a hybrid police-military force that is unique to Italy. Although he eluded arrest, they rounded up most of his lieutenants and put them on trial. There was contradictory testimony, based in part on the word of his men who swore that they were innocent. Rosi’s obvious intention was to demonstrate that the state and the bandits often served each other’s needs.
For the most convincing account of what happened at Portella della Ginestra, it is best to read John Dickie’s “Costra Nostra: a History of the Sicilian Mafia” that I have relied on in my previous article and that can be downloaded here.
Dickie argues that the separatist movement was launched by a coalition of Allied officers, their political overseers in Washington, the Sicilian landed gentry, and the mafia. The whole goal of separatism was to create a counterforce to the central government that reflected the interests of an urban and manufacturing based capitalist class in league with a Communist Party eager to join forces with the “progressive bourgeoisie”. Despite Giuliano’s reputation as a Robin Hood, he was more than willing to join the semi-feudal elite in Sicily even if it meant killing the poor. Rosi was so committed to showing this side of the bandit’s cruelty that the extras he used in the Portella della Ginestra massacre scene were drawn from people in nearby towns who escaped with their lives in 1947.
Furthermore, even though there is not a single mafia figure in Rosi’s film, Dickie leaves little doubt that Giuliani was a mafioso himself:
Giuliano’s relationship with the mafia also fits a classic pattern; he would not have been able to survive these early years and build his band into the most successful in Sicily without protection from men of honour. When he kidnapped someone, the captive’s relatives knew that they had to turn to the local boss who would ensure a safe return in exchange for a portion of the ransom. In other words, the mafia ‘taxed’ both the bandit leader and the people he persecuted.
It was later revealed by one of Giuliano’s closest collaborators that he had been through a mafia initiation ritual. Mafia supergrass Tommaso Buscetta said that he was presented to Giuliano as ‘the same thing’. If true, this does not necessarily mean that the bandit was an integral part of the association; initiating him was more likely to have been a way of reinforcing his loyalty and keeping watch on his activities.
In an interview with Cineaste, Rosi disavowed offering pat answers to what remains as something of a mystery in Salvatore Giuliano’s criminal career. He stated that “Salvatore Giuliano” was structured as an investigation into the relationship between causes and effects. He saw the search for the truth as constituting the narrative line of the film. He summarized his goal: “I wanted to pose questions to the audience, questions I either didn’t know the answers to or did not wish to give answers to. My films are not policiers, or thrillers, but instead aim to provoke, to insinuate doubts, to challenge the official statements and certainties from the powers that be which hide real interests and the truth.”
Although Rosi was part of the Communist-influenced neo-realist generation, none of his films are as propagandistic as “The Bicycle Thief” or “Battle of Algiers” for that matter. They challenge the viewer to “search for the truth” as stated above. That being said, the closest relative to “Salvatore Giuliano” stylistically is “Battle of Algiers” with which it shared a documentary-like quality. The film is a somewhat neglected masterpiece that is a slice of Italian history that no book can come close to in terms of conveying the human drama of life in Sicily, an island that has never evolved fully into a modern democracy. Ironically, it will probably take a socialist revolution to allow the norms of bourgeois democracy such as found in the Bill of Rights to fully prevail. Indeed, the same is true of Italy as a whole, as should be obvious by the drift toward fascism embodied in the Northern League government.
The third film considered in this article is the one most engaged with the need for a revolutionary transformation of Sicily, as well as the entire country. Titled “I Cento Passi” (100 Steps), it is like Rosi’s film–a portrait of an important figure in Italian history, namely Giuseppi “Peppino” Impastato, who was the son of a low-level mafia member born in 1948 and who would become part of Italy’s New Left.
Made in 2000, the film was directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, about whom not much can be gleaned from the usual sources such as Wikipedia, JSTOR, Nexis and the like. Suffice it to say that his sympathies are clearly with Impastato who was murdered by the mafia in 1978 for being a thorn in the side to the gangsters in his hometown of Cinisi, not far from Palermo just like the towns depicted in the two films above.
As a young boy, Impastato found himself drawn to the local Communist leader who supported himself as an artist. One possible explanation for his hatred for the mafia was the murder of his uncle Cesare Manzella, who was a mafia member like his father but much more powerful. It was a bomb that cost his life just like the one that would blow apart the already strangled body of Impastato himself.
In 1965, he became an activist in Cinisi just like I would become in New York City two years later (he was born three years after me). But putting out a radical newspaper in such a town was a lot different than it was in New York. Like an SDS’er at Columbia, Impastato was filled with fire and fury. He would hawk his newspaper on the streets beneath Cinisi’s most powerful don who happened to be the mayor, screaming so loud that he could be heard for blocks: “The mafia is shit”.
As happened in the USA, the left took a cultural turn as the sixties wore on. Operating a radio station in Cinisi devoted to radical issues, especially one calling for the destruction of the mafia, Impastato eventually came into contact with activists from other European nations who convinced him that sexual liberation and political liberation went hand in hand. In the film, we see the newcomers to Cinisi dancing naked on the beach as the village locals gape on in disbelief.
This was not the sort of thing, however, that would get you killed. It was running for city council in 1978 that sealed his doom when Giuseppi “Peppino” Impastato became a martyr in the anti-mafia cause that is still ongoing in Italy.
Matteo Salvini, the Northern League party member now serving as Deputy Prime Minister and who is a close ally of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, was described by the Guardian as being linked to the mafia through the former mayor of Reggio Calabria, one Giuseppe Scopelliti. Scopelliti, whose support for Salvini was critical in his electoral climb to the top, is linked in turn to ‘Ndrangheta, a drug-dealing syndicate based in Calabria.
The ‘Ndrangheta is part of the Camorra, the mainland counterpart to the Sicilian mafia. Salvini has been feuding with Roberto Saviano, a journalist with a long record of investigating Italian organized crime. This year Salvini threatened to remove Saviano’s police protection, even though Saviano has been under threat from the Camorra since he published Gomorrah, his breakthrough book about the mafia in Naples, in 2006.
While there are no direct links between Salvini and the Camorra, one can understand why gangsters would be happy to see the Northern League running Italy just as the landed gentry in Sicily was ready to make deals with Salvatore Giuliani, the mafia gangsters he worked with, and the biggest criminal enterprise in the world today: the American military.
A final word on the availability of these films. I was able to borrow subtitled DVD’s from Columbia University so it is likely that if you are in college you will be able to get your hands on them through Borrow Direct or Interlibrary Loan. There are also used copies for sale on Amazon for around $10 and up. In an ideal world, such treasures would be available on Youtube or other VOD outlets. But, as should be obvious, there is nothing ideal about the world we are living in. Hopefully, future articles in this series will be based on films more easily accessible. But I wanted to bring your attention in this one about the crème de la crème.