Lincoln Plaza & Angelika
Death threats are being doled out to anyone divulging the denouement of Rialto Pictures’ re-release of the 1962 Italian comedy Mafioso. A.O. Scott at The New York Times warns us that the distributor “has promised to fit any critic who reveals too much of the plot with a pair of cement shoes.” Anthony Lane at The New Yorker is playing it safe as well, writing, “If you give [the end] away, the Don will not be happy.”
So, to begin at the beginning: Nino, a dignified factory foreman saunters down the floor of his work place. The walk carries history: it’s confident but a little self-conscious, possessing the kind of showiness that’s covering something up. It’s clear from his gait that Nino wasn’t born into a position authority, but he’s fond of what he’s fashioned himself into.
With his self-conscious strut, Nino isn’t covering up a criminal past, but a small town background. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s not a city boy. Not that he’d ever say as much; he’s too smooth for that. He’s a cool boss, he’d be proud to say, stopping to tell a laborer not to rush his work, but to find a more relaxed rhythm with his monotonous hole-punching. After this advice, Nino pays a visit to his boss, where we learn he’s about to take his family on a vacation to his hometown in Sicily. Here, he is to hand-deliver a letter to Don Vincenzo. And as we know, in a movie about the Mafia, Don ain’t short for Donald.
But then, 1962 audiences may not have been so wise to this. Rialto Pictures told me in an email that Mafioso “is the first major Italian movie to deal with the Mafia so openly and in such a direct way. This was a big deal when the movie first came out in 1962 in Italy.” To fully comprehend the suspense of the movie, you have to transport yourself back quite a bit, and see that there would have been a lot more mystery about the portentousness of doing a favor for the Don. Much of the audience would be wondering, like Nino’s wife, “Who is this Don Vincenzo?”
Coasting on the built-in suspense of the Mafia mystery, director Alberto Lattuada spends time hanging out with Nino’s family, on the Sicilian beaches, and at the markets, covering lots of character business. And a busy movie it is. In an opening scene, Lattuada makes a fun game of seeing how many modern conveniences Nino can use simultaneously: he shaves with an electric razor while polishing his shoes with a buzzing buffer, shouting over both to converse with his wife. (It’s an old gag, the man-and-his-modern-toys bit, familiar from Modern Times, Playtime, and Bananas.)
Later, on the trip to Sicily, Lattuada makes a study of Nino’s family, and the clash between his self-styled cosmopolitanism and the Sicilian clan’s old-fashioned customs, giving us plenty of material to mull over without getting to the Mafia stuff of Mafioso. The tension between modernity and Sicilian folkways provides conflict and structure to the stuff that takes place between Nino and his family, and makes for something to pay attention to while Nino is slowly recruited by the Don’s henchmen. The trip to Sicily, partly by boat is – like Nino’s errand for the Don at the end of the movie – “both short and long.” While Nino points out the phone lines that now supposedly conjoin Sicily to mainland Italy, the brief boat trip has traversed tons of time. Nino’s electric gadgets would probably look as strange to his Sicilian family as an iPod.
The high energy pulses through most of Mafioso: a rooftop lunch is packed with the gestations and gesticulations of Nino’s relatives, the sound and compositions dense enough to register how hard the bottom falls out when Nino’s wife pulls out a cigarette – not an acceptable habit for a lady in this family – and everyone goes quiet. Even towards the end of the movie, when the goings get serious and Nino’s in the back seat of a car flanked by two stoic goons, things don’t drag. Nino’s fellow passengers steal the somber scene with facial twitches and humorous sidelong looks.
As Phillip Lopate pointed out in Film Comment, this is a “pre-Godfather, unromantic treatment of the mob,” but still, there’s something suspicious about a movie for which the surprise ending is so damned important. All the business with the crowded frames and quirky family members (including a running gag involving a young lady’s mustache) starts to feel more like trimming than substance. Some critics’ take on Mafioso is that it is mocking Nino, criticizing his urbanity or quasi-sophistication. But I don’t buy it. Alberto Sordi plays Nino far too lovingly for the movie to be a critique of his character.
Sure, the gradual build-up to the secret ending was more mysterious in the pre-Godfather days mentioned by Lopate, when audiences weren’t so familiar with the Italian crime syndicate and its limitless grasp. But that tension hasn’t aged so well in 45 years. Admittedly, there is an exhilarating moment when the movie transitions from confinement to spaciousness as a convertible roof is retracted shortly after a medium-long take inside a black box. It’s exciting because Lattuada treats the whooshing verticals of the city’s towering buildings as images of intoxicating freedom. In a movie that comes close to critiquing cosmopolitanism, amorous images of urbanity are fascinating. The excitement of the city almost distracts Nino from what he’s about to do, and we’re reminded that Mafioso isn’t about the politics of progress but about a man. But that’s near the end, and I’m not supposed to write about that.