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Criterion 424
1962 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date March 18, 2008 / 29.95
Starring Alberto Sordi, Norma Bengell,
Cinematography Armando Nannuzzi
Film Editor Nino Baragli
Original Music Piero Piccioni
Written by Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli
Produced by Antonio Cervi
Directed by Alberto Lattuada

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Americans have had little exposure to the classic movie criminals of other nations, whether English 'spivs' or pre-war Japanese Yakuzas, the kind that wear traditional dress and disdain the use of guns. Alberto Lattuada's serio-comedy Mafioso is an engaging original about cultural perceptions and criminal reality. It answers the questions raised by its Italian trailer: What is the Mafia? Who is the Mafia? Could it be someone you know? Could it be you?

The amusing but essentially serious gangster movie stars Alberto Sordi, an actor known for both comedy and drama. Its deceptively simple script helps us understand why the Mafia is so thoroughly entrenched in Sicilian life.


Production foreman Nino Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi) can't wait to take his family on a vacation visit to his native Sicily. Nino's boss at the Turin auto factory entrusts him to carry a small gift for Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), the respected Mafia chieftain in Nino's hometown. Wife Marta (Norma Bengell, Planet of the Vampires) isn't eager to trade Turin for the privations of the tiny Badalamenti house, especially after a hostile reception from her mother-in-law. When the paternal Don Vincenzo does Nino's father a big favor, Nino gratefully says that he's indebted to the wily old mobster. It's just a figure of speech to Nino, but a blood oath to his Sicilian kin. Vincenzo has big plans for Nino to repay the debt.

Mafioso uses a documentary approach from the very beginning, as Nino Badalamenti oversees metalworkers on a Fiat assembly line. He kowtows to his boss and rushes through the frustrating traffic like any other Italian city dweller. Separated from la famiglia for fifteen years, Nino can't wait to return to the homeland he idealizes. As their boat approaches Messina, wife Marta isn't as enthusiastic: for the average Northern Italian, Sicily is a backward and inhospitable place of misery and vendetta.

Marta is dismayed by her husband's euphoria. When his car pauses next to a funeral, Nino asks how the man died. "Two shots" says a relative. People whisper about friends who have gone missing after having betrayed the Mafia. The Badalamentis stare coldly at Marta, a blonde from the North who smokes cigarettes. Nobody's doing anything about Nino's little sister's very prominent moustache, and she's supposed to be married soon. Unemployed laggards stare at Marta from the bars and ogle her on the beach. Yet Nino still sings his love for his hometown.

The imperious Don Vincenzo receives Nino with caution. The Mafia had a different meaning in post-war Sicily -- as explained in Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano, the organization helped take the island back from its German occupiers. According to the Sicilians, after the liberation the Americans reneged on a promise of independence from Italy. Corrupt politicians colluded with Mafia traditionalists to wipe out the organization's revolutionary wing. Nino's hometown is now in terrible economic shape, and only those with ties to Don Vincenzo prosper. Even the local baroness does Vincenzo's bidding.

Every favor from the Mafia carries a hidden price. A cranky neighbor has refused to sell a desirable plot of land to the Badalamenti family. Don Vincenzo uses his influence and the problem vanishes. When Vincenzo's nephew Don Liborio (Carmelo Oliveiro) determines that Nino is a crack shot, we realize that Nino is being gently coerced into performing an undisclosed return favor. Liborio invites Nino on a two-day hunting trip that turns out to be something completely different.

That's when Mafioso becomes much, much darker. Don Vincenzo has only to mention Marta and the children, and Nino realizes that he has no choice -- he must do as he is asked. Marta would never understand. She's finally enjoying herself, having charmed Nino's family by using city-girl smarts to remove the sister's unwanted facial hair. Hooray, shouts the Badalamenti family -- let's marry her off quick before it grows back! Meanwhile, Nino has an appointment with destiny.

Alberto Sordi has a vaguely funny face and his emotional reactions are amusing, but he's no fool. We're concerned when his future and his family are put in jeopardy. Mafioso's tone shifts from light comedy to uneasy suspense, and continues to darker revelations. Nino learns that his life is essentially beyond his control. He's the pawn of men more powerful than he. A secret, feudalistic organization can whisk Nino to a far-off country and force him to become an assassin, without batting an eye.

One of the first Italians to make crime films after the war, the underappreciated Alberto Lattuada was never firmly associated with any particular genre or style. He's the co-director of the classic Variety Lights, although critics frequently write as if the film were all Federico Fellini's doing. Made in the same year, Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano offers an intellectual critique of Mafia history, while Lattuada's Mafioso presents the Mafia's power in terms that anyone can understand.

Criterion's DVD of Mafioso comes in a flawless enhanced B&W transfer. Piero Piccioni's animated score hits all of the film's moods. Sharp B&W cinematography by Armando Nannuzzi captures the blazing sun of Sicily and the grayer light of Turin. Ironically, when Nino finds himself in a foreign land, we see a movie marquee advertising the latest gangster hit: The Scarface Mob!

Curtis Tsui is Criterion's disc producer. An insert booklet contains essays by Phillip Lopate and Roberto Chiesi, and a text interview with director Lattuada from a 1982 book by Claudio Camerini. Filmmaker Daniele Luchetti interviews Lattuada in a 1996 filmed interview and new interviews are provided with Carla Del Poggio and Alessandro Lattuada, Alberto's wife and son. They all agree on one thing -- Lattuada's eclectic career is difficult to pin down.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Mafioso rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interviews, trailers, promotional artwork
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 25, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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