Mafioso (1962) Alberto Luttuada

Long before Don Corleone, Don Vincenzo made an offer you could not refuse.

After recording this film off TCM many months ago, I finally got around to watching it, why I waited so long I do not know. Re-released in the United States in 2006 when it was shown at the New York Film Festival, “Mafioso” is a brilliant black comedy, the kind that Italian cinema did so well back in the 1950’s and 1960’s (Divorce, Italian Style, Seduced and Abandon, Big Deal on Madonna Street).  In Mafioso, director Alberto Luttuada mixes genres, flipping from a bright almost frothy comedy in the beginning to a dark, horrific nightmarish world. It is also a story of family and class culture shock where modern Milan (Northern Italy) meets its poor dirt cousins of Sicily ruled by age old suspicions of the law, outlaws and the Mafia.

The age old tension between Northern and Southern Italians is at the root of much of the humor in “Mafioso.” While Northern Italy benefited from the Industrialization and the unification of Italy, Southern Italians remained  in poverty and under educated, generally looked down upon by the north who assumed a more superior posture. So when Nino Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi), a transplanted Sicilian, becomes a success as supervisor at a Fiat factory in Milan, it was a big deal for his family back home.  

At work, Nino is precise, organized and he ensures everything runs like clockwork keeping a close watch on his workers. Nino’s success extends to his family life, he has a modern home, modern conviencences and is married to Marta (Norma Bengell), a sophisticated beautiful blonde with whom he has two adorable blonde haired young girls. Saving his vacation time and money Nino plans a two week trip back to his homeland in Sicily. For his wife and kids this will be the first time they all meet Nino’s family. Just before he is ready to leave the plant for his vacation, Nino’s boss, a Sicilian, via New Jersey, unexpectedly asks him if he knows Don Vincenzo his home town’s capo di tutti capi.  Nino replies of course, everyone knows the town’s patriarch, and no he would not mind delivering a gift since he would have to visit and pay his respects to the elderly man. Little does Nino realize at the time that this little favor will change his life.

For Nino coming home is a joyous reunion, he is the successful son that made it.  For Marta, the trip from modern bustling Milan to the dirt filled village of Nino’s home is culture shock, a trip back to a more primitive time. She tells him, “Italy is fading away” as they ride a ferry leaving the mainland. His family’s small home is filled with relatives, all dressed in black, a sister with a thick moustache and parents who are suspicious of a blonde daughter-in-law who they see as a snobbish intruder. His wife feels unwelcome and wants to go home.  Connecting his two worlds Nino discovers is not an easy task.

 The family dinners are filled with large festival meals of fried swordfish and black pasta (it seems everywhere they go they are showered with food). Nino visits old friends half who seem to be unemployed while the other half seem to be working for the local Don. Nino must pay his respects to Don Vincenzo, who he swore allegiance to as a young boy. He delivers the package from his boss that contains a jewel heart shaped ornament with the names of deceased “friends”  inscribed on it. Later when Nino tries to help his father settle a land acquisition, the seller believing now there is water on the land raises the price, Don Vincenzo “helps” settle the dispute, and in return the crime boss ask a favor.  When the Don and his associates discover Nino is an expert  shot with a gun his fate is even further sealed sending Nino’s world into a dark unforeseen direction.

Lattuada seems very much a visual artist, his camera embraces the landscape as well as the structural design of the film’s three locations, whether it is northern Italy, Sicily or New York. In each his camera soaks in the beauty and style of each location, so much that they literary become  a character in the film.  He and his writers have also put together some interesting vignettes on life in the backward Sicilian village; the first meal with Nino’s family loaded with food, food and more food, the women always dressed in black (as Italian-American comedian Pat Cooper said in one of his comedy albums  that way  “if somebody dies, they’re ready!”), Nino’s conversation with his beach bum friends who ogle his wife when she appears later in this sequence  in  a skimpy bikini, and when Nino and his family first arrive in Sicily, they pass a “party” for a recently deceased person. Later as they walk along the street on their way to pay respects to Don Vincenzo, they pass home after home with small signs at each doorway that are in memory of a deceased family member. Death seems to be a constant companion to the culture.

As Nino, Alberto Sordi swings from the light heartedness of the early part of the film to the dark Godfather like finale with supreme ease. He has a innate style for moving back and forth between comedy and drama. 

Freeing himself from his past Nino discovers will take more than moving to a city up North, marrying a beautiful upscale blonde and working at a great job.   Though more than forty years have passed with audiences being subjected to funny and some not so funny Mafia’s films like “Analyze This” and “Mickey Blue Eyes”, “Mafioso” is a classic and has lost none of its bite.

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8 comments on “Mafioso (1962) Alberto Luttuada

  1. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I watched this a few weeks ago (also recorded off TCM when they repeated it) and like you found it very entertaining and funny. I expected something like “The Godfather” and was quite surprised when the movie turned out to be a very, very dry comedy. This was the first thing I’d ever seen Alberto Sordi in and thought his manic comedy style made a nice contrast to the rather laid-back acting of the rest of the cast–I find one hyperactive personality like this per movie quite enough. As you pointed out, the film did give a really flavorful (and satirical) view of contemporary Sicily and how different it is from the rest of Italy, particularly the industrialized north. (I’ve been reading some of the Inspector Montalbani mysteries by Andrea Camilleri, and it seems that a lot of things in Sicily haven’t changed much. I recommend them–they’re dark and funny at the same time like this movie.) The part where he makes the whirlwind trip to New York came and went like a dream. I watched it because Dave at Goodfella’s picked it as his #1 movie of 1962. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is one of the best of that year and should be better known. Maybe your admirably thorough post will inspire readers who haven’t yet seen it to do so.

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  2. John Greco says:

    Thanks R.D. , the film does take some unexpected turns and it all works so beautifully. As a third generation Italian-American (Sicilian) I always found the history of the conflicts between the Northern and Southern Italians interesting. I am going to have to check out the Andrea Camilleri novels, thanks for mentioning them. I have only seen Sordi in three films, this one , I Vitelloni which I just watched recently too and many years ago in a film called The Best of Enemies which I do not remember anything about.

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  3. Dave says:

    Ah, I am excited that you got to see this one, John! As R.D. notes, I chose this as my #1 of 1962 in my yearly countdown and I wholeheartedly stick with that pick… in fact, even with the number of outstanding films released that year, it remains an incredibly easy decision for me. At the Wonders in the Dark Best of the 1960s poll, I ranked it #2 for the entire decade behind only Hitchcock’s Psycho. So to say that I think highly of it is an incredible understatement. The switch from lighthearted dark comedy to deadly serious gangster film still amazes me. It shouldn’t go as smoothly as it does, but Lattuada is good enough to pull it off.

    More people should see this movie. Even if the story and Sordi’s performance don’t grab them, Lattuada’s visual sense is impressive enough to make a viewing worthwhile for anyone interested in cinema.

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave, this film would definitely make my best list of the year though I still would go with THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE or KNIFE IN THE WATER for my #1. That said, this is truly a unique film and one that I hope gets more exposure and I can understand your enthusiasm for it. Tbanks much!!!

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  4. Maurizio Roca says:

    I have never seen this film but everyone’s praises make me want to seek it out. I will say that my mother was born in Sicily and that most of that island has modernized extensively in the last two decades or so. There is tension between north and south though that still prevails to this day. I would equate it with our own problems in the USA between east/west coast and south/middle america.

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    • John Greco says:

      Interesting Maurizio, a cousin of mine went to Sicily a few years ago and visited the little town (village?) wheren our grand parents came from (all I know it was on the outskirts of Palermo), and he said it was still a fairly poor area, at least the places he saw. Hopefully they have modernized.

      Hope you get a chance to see this film, think you would like it.

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  5. Sam Juliano says:

    “Lattuada seems very much a visual artist, his camera embraces the landscape as well as the structural design of the film’s three locations, whether it is northern Italy, Sicily or New York. In each his camera soaks in the beauty and style of each location, so much that they literary become a character in the film.”

    This is a bravura observation John, and in fact this entire review is suffused with a singular enthusiasm. I never embraced this film as anything close to a masterpiece, but there are a number of reasons why it is a distinguished work, including the exquisite aesthetic of 1960’s widescreen black and white cinematography, which allows Lattuada to enconse his characters in a detailed social environment, while simultaneously achieving some expressionistic effect, creating in fact noirish shadows in the night sequence prior to Nino’s departure. Going back to the segment I copied here from your review John, I concur with your ever-meticulous attention to setting, which yields at one point to a brilliant dicotemy, first showing Sicily’s parched horizontal landscape, and then moving to New York City’s vertical cityscape. Also alluring the operatic intensity of Verdian verismo as part of Pierro Piccioni’s excellent score.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam, the cinematography is excellent as is the score that you astutely bring up. I wonder when Scorsese first watched this film?

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