Joe Pesci repeatedly stabbing someone in the eye with a pen. James Gandolfini slamming a nemesis on the noggin with a frying pan. James Caan doing the hippy-hippy-shake at a tollbooth in New Jersey. These are scenes of actors killing and getting killed as Mafia characters in movies and TV. Despite the cruelty and bloodletting, we've come to love our idealized version of La Cosa Nostra in pop culture. Hell, Kendra from The Girls Next Door even has a huge John Gotti poster in her bedroom. The reality is not that sexy. Marco Turco's excellent documentary, based on Alexander Stille's book, does a remarkable job covering the recent history of the Mafia in Sicily through politely restrained but seething reportage that exposes the entrenched death-grip the Mafia holds.
Combining newsreel footage, the stunning photography of photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, reenactments and interviews, Turco takes us on a non-sensationalized ride through the streets of Palermo. From the aftermath of World War Two, when Mafia figures were enlisted by the Italian government to maintain order, to the present day, wherein the Mafia is so intertwined with politics as to be intractable, we're privy to numerous bloody assassinations, lengthy trials and the sense that stamping out organized crime in that sunny locale is tantamount to a huge game of whack-a-mole.
Excellent Cadavers doesn't come close to romanticizing Capos and Dons, in fact they are barely seen, mostly as contemptible figures on trial or bloody corpses in the street. Rather, the documentary tries vainly to give some respect and glory to those in government and law-enforcement who have tirelessly fought to bring to justice those who hold Sicily in thrall. It's said that 80% of businesses in Sicily pay protection money to the Mob, but it appears that for guys like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, (the nominal heroes of the film) the reward for their fight is to live in a virtual prison, in constant fear of deadly reprisal.
Turco's judicious use of gory photography in favor of polite reportage and news footage of landmark trials in the 1980s keeps Excellent Cadavers from being the rip-roaring crime file that 'Mob fans' would like, but it also renders the problem terrifyingly real. Nothing can match the spectacular coldness of a successful assassination in which nearly four football fields worth of freeway are blown up to eradicate one prosecutor. It's quite a way to make a point, and very efficacious both for Turco and the crime families he tries to bring to light. An equally disturbing point is made when a reporter asks a magistrate if there is any hope for the city. "No hope," he nearly cries, "don't make me say any more."
First Run Features consistently presents top-notch documentaries, and Excellent Cadavers is no exception. Turco's calm unveiling of the baseline realities of the Mafia in Sicily is all the more stomach-turning for its matter-of-fact simplicity. Coupled with Battaglia's haunting photography, in which battered faces weep blood into the gutter, this documentary is enough to make you wonder about human nature. But is the obvious brutality of the Mafia's link to Italian government any worse than the rights-abusing collusion between Big Business and government in the US and elsewhere? That's for another documentary to examine. For now, grab an espresso, learn the truth about the Mob, and keep your nose clean, kid.