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.