Friday, August 7, 2009

1962: Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada)

Released: October 25, 1962

Director: Alberto Lattuada; Screenplay: Rafael Azcona, Bruno Caruso, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli; Cinematography: Armando Nannuzzi; Studio: Zenith International Films, Rialto Pictures; Producers: Tonino Cervi and Dino De Laurentis

Cast: Alberto Sordi (Antonio “Nino” Badalamenti), Norma Bengell (Marta Badalamenti), Gabriella Conti (Rosalia), Ugo Attanasio (Don Vincenzo), Cinzia Bruno (Donatella), Katiusca Piretti (Patrizia), Armando Tine (Dr. Zanchi), Lilly Bistrattin (Dr. Zanchi’s Secretary), Michele Bailly (Young Baroness), Francesco Lo Briglio (Don Calogero), Carmelo Oliviero (Don Liborio)

My discovery of Alberto Lattuada’s neglected masterpiece Mafioso is funny as I look back on it now. It was essentially a blind buy, as the spine of the Criterion Collection release happened to catch my eye one day as I was perusing the shelves at Borders. Criterion had just released this entry in their excellent series, but not yet being a devout follower of their work, I was completely unfamiliar with the film. As I’ve said many times on the blog, I have a longstanding interest bordering on obsession with organized crime and its history, so coming upon a film titled Mafioso that was released by the very reputable folks at Criterion instantly grabbed my attention. The thing that struck me was that it was shelved in the “comedy” section of the store. While not exactly the best news to receive when craving an interesting gangster or crime film, I bought it anyway, expecting something along the lines of Divorce Italian Style or other similar Italian comedies of the era. And for the first hour or so of the film, this is what I watched as the movie poked fun at Italian stereotypes and riffed on jokes highlighting the differences between northern and southern Italians. In fact, I found it funnier even than Divorce Italian Style.

Then, a little over midway through the film, it is like a switch is flipped and things begin to change. The humorous, cheery atmosphere and the beautiful Sicilian landscape are cast aside as dark late-night rendezvous and secretive plotting become the focus of the film. What had once been working marvelously as a light social satire is transformed into an intense moral dilemma as the lead character’s loyalties are put to the ultimate test. I have never experienced another movie that was able to make such a leap while maintaining such cohesiveness. It underscores Lattuada’s skill as a director that these two halves of the film, with two completely different tones, are fit together seamlessly, never once feeling like they have been unnaturally stitched together.

Internationally, Alberto Lattuada is a director that is commonly overshadowed by the staggering reputations of his contemporaries in Italian cinema – Fellini, Visconti, De Sica, Rossellini, and Pasolini to name but a few of the giants working in the same era. In his time, however, Lattuada was a prominent director within his home country, earning the reputation as a leader in popular comedies. If his films were not as analyzed and examined by the intelligentsia at the same level as those of his colleagues, they were nevertheless successful. Even this film, which was all but forgotten outside of Italy until its recent restoration and release, was a box office hit in 1963. How it was never discovered and revered in the United States – whose film industry has a fascination with (often to the point of glorification) of gangsters and crime – is a mystery to me. I would venture to say that there are many people like me who consider themselves to be relatively well-versed movie fans but had never heard of or given a thought to this film before Criterion released it. Perhaps that is why this movie bowled me over as it did after just one viewing. The fact that a movie that just a few hours earlier I had virtually no knowledge of was this amazing was an absolute delight. It’s the kind of event that gives a movie fan hope that there are reels and reels of other such masterpieces waiting to be acquired and enjoyed.

Alberto Sordi stars as Nino Badalamenti, a Sicilian who has moved to Milan and become an efficiency expert at a local car plant. Nino is planning a two week vacation back to his homeland, which will be his first trip back since moving north and also the first time that he will be able to introduce his wife and two children to the rest of his family. His wife (Norma Bengell), a gorgeous blond and native northerner, is unenthusiastic about the trip, nervous that the Badalamenti clan will not accept her. Nino sings the praises of the island in order to excite his wife about the trip, and Lattuada uses breathtaking shots to emphasize to the audience that Nino is not at all exaggerating about the beauty of Sicily.

Once in Sicily, the fears of Nino’s wife are at least somewhat borne out. Much of the comedy throughout these early parts of the film result from the tension created between the old world values of the Badalamentis and the new age, liberated personality of his wife Marta. Things get off to a rocky start early on when Marta is distributing gifts to family members and realizes that she has naively bought Nino’s father a pair of gloves, not realizing that he lost his a hand through a gun accident. Further friction arises from things that appear innocuous to viewers now, and obviously were assumed to be innocuous by Marta in the story itself – things such as her lighting a cigarette in public after a large meal. The indignation of the Badalamenti family is quite funny, only outdone by the squirming and uncomfortable look of Nino who is caught in the middle. Much of the comedy also arises from poking fun at many Italian stereotypes, such as Nino’s sister being plagued by a dark mustache, but they never come across to me as demeaning. Instead, it just feels like one being able to poke fun at himself and his countrymen.

Nino relishes the opportunity to reunite with old friends, but in the process is drawn back into a society and subculture that he hoped had been left to his past. While traveling around the city to say hello to acquaintances and friends, Nino insists that his family go and pay their respects to the local Mafia don, Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio). Over the course of several meetings and conversations, it becomes clear that Don Vincenzo played a key role in Nino landing his lucrative job in the Milan factory. When Don Vincenzo does him another favor by smoothing out a land dispute between Nino’s father and a local townsman, Nino realizes that he is further indebted to the boss. This fact is driven home further when Don Vincenzo’s nephew visits and reminds him of the fact that he is considered a piciotto d'onore (translated, this would the equivalent of a low-level soldier or associate in American crime families). This sets the stage for one final memorable face-to-face with Don Vincenzo, shot in ink black darkness and with chilling effect by Lattuada. It is here that the mood of the film shifts dramatically. Nino is understandably hesitant, no longer wishing to be caught up in the violence he had grown up in. Yet he understands that he must follow through on this favor or be completely ostracized by his hometown as has happened to so many others. Thus, Nino agrees. The sequences that follow in Nino’s journey to New York and his amazement at riding through the bustling city streets are visual ecstasy. Still, realizing the flip-flops being done by Nino’s conscience manage to dampen the overall tone.

Reading a description of the sudden leap from light comedy to dark tragedy simply does not do justice to how well it works. I don’t want to overly praise Lattuada, as this is the only film of his that I have seen, but it’s impossible not to applaud the mastery it takes to make this happen and feel natural. Much of this is also the result of the dexterity of Alberto Sordi’s performance, as the dark overtones taken on in the film are the result of the moral wrestling being done in Nino’s mind. When offered the contract, he at first balks, arguing that he left all of this gunplay and honored society behind when he moved north. But it quickly becomes obvious to Nino that refusing the job would mean more than simply disappointing his benefactor. Earlier in the film, many stories were told of Sicilians who had some degree of success and were shunned for “forgetting where they came from.” This turning of one’s back on friends and family is clearly the worst offense that can be committed in Calamo. Refusing the request from Don Vincenzo would result in similar repercussions for Nino, and could quite possibly mean danger for his family as well. All it takes is reminders of past loyalties and displays of longstanding Sicilian traditions. The fact that all of this is enough to ultimately convince him to do something he does not want to do is clear: maybe such mores can be too much for any one man to rebel against. Sordi is equally adept at playing the comic factory worker or the coldblooded expert marksman. While this is not his most lauded performance, just one viewing of Mafioso is enough to realize why he is considered to be among the finest Italian actors of all time.

On repeat viewings, the thing that most impresses me about Lattuada is how the film actually hints at the sinister events that are to come. He does it through subtle allusions that will mean nothing to a first-time viewer, but that in retrospect are obviously building momentum toward the fated conclusion. Little things, such as his boss at the factory asking him to deliver a package to a well-known citizen in Calamo. Or, even more pointedly, Nino’s virtuoso performance at a shooting gallery can make one understand why he would be chosen for such a task. Lattuada is never so bold as to throw these things into the viewer’s face, but in looking back they are slight hints of what Nino might be capable of. Equally as stunning is the photography, which is as diverse as the jumps in the storyline. The outdoor shots of Sicily are bright and dazzling, showing off the natural landscape that has attracted visitors for centuries. It could be argued that it does not take a genius to film a location this beautiful, but Lattuada still has an eye for capturing just the right shot – as an example, I offer the shots of Nino and his family sailing away from the mainland and into the island. When things become serious, such as when Don Vincenzo is imploring Nino to carry out the contract, Lattuada and cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi alter the atmosphere in turn. Many of the scenes begin to take place at night, in darkness that at times is all-encompassing. The meeting between Nino and Don Vincenzo in the backseat of the don’s car is among my favorite scenes in all of cinema and is intense no matter how many times I watch it. It looks magnificent in its darkness and serves as the perfect lever to propel the film toward its finale.

This is a movie that resists conventional classifications. Labeling it a comedy, as is often done, makes the film seem much more lighthearted than it ultimately is. To say that it is an out-and-out gangster film would also be misleading, because for the first forty minutes it is nothing of the sort. In my own final estimation, I suppose that I group it more along the lines of great gangster films like the Godfather trilogy as opposed to the Italian comedies of Germi or Monicelli. My own opinion of it is that it is among the best crime dramas that I have seen and it remains the greatest “discovery” that I’ve ever made in my own movie watching. Not only is this my #1 film of 1963, it is my personal #1 in the storied history of Italian cinema. It is a pity that this movie is not more well-known and remains unseen by so many.

[As a side note, the Criterion disc looks amazing and has an absolutely crisp transfer.]

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1962: A number of great films in 1962. At one time, I probably would have listed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as my favorite John Ford film. While it doesn’t hold that status anymore, it’s still among his best. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos is great at capturing the atmosphere of the noirs that Melville loved. It contains stunning black and white photography. I have also always been a fan of The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer. While some may consider it dated, I find the entire thing interesting and fascinating. It’s a great political thriller. And finally, I love the epic scope of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a rightly lauded film and I without question consider it to be the best of Lean’s career.

Here are some other movies that I really like, but didn’t really contend for the top spot: Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich), Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan), Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski).

As I said in my 1961 choice, regardless of which year you go with for Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, it won’t make a favorites list for me. I have never been able to get into it.


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1962:

    The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel; Spain)


    An Autumn Afternoon (Ozu; Japan)
    L'Eclisse (Antonioni; Italy)
    Lawrence of Arabia (Lean; UK)
    La Jetee (Marker; France)
    Lolita (Kubrick)
    Winter Light (Bergman; Sweden)
    Vivre sa Vie (Godard; France)
    The Wanderer's Notebook (Naruse; Japan)
    Carnival of Souls (Harvey)
    To Kill A Mockingbird (Mulligan)
    Ivan's Childhood (Tarkovsky; Russia)
    The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Richardson; UK)
    The Music Man (da Costa)
    The Miracle Worker (Penn)
    Knife in the Water (Polanski; Poland)
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford)
    Le Doulos (Melville; France)
    Harakiri (Kobayashi; Japan)
    Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich)
    Ride the High Country (Peckinpah)

    This is the first time I can remember Dave, when your #1 doesn't even make my runners-up list. I own the Criterion DVD of course, but I never was a fan here. Neither am I a fan of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, which is very much dated as you noted. But you have penned a most thorough and enthusiastic review, informed by your "discover" and unforgettable "first viewing" and you elaborate on the various elements that are present in this "unique" gangster film. Regardless of what I think, your argument is superlative and your excitement palpable. I salute you for that.

  2. Sam - I would be surprised if Mafioso makes the list of anyone. I obviously fell in love with it immediately and have actually been a bit excited about posting it as my best of 1962 and seeing the responses... it'll keep things interesting!

    Ivan's Childhood was something of an oversight... that should have been in "Other Contenders" list.

  3. Dave, I got the advance word on Mafioso when the restoration was released in New York, but I didn't see it until the Albany Public Library picked up the DVD. I was as impressed as you with the shift of tone, but 1962 is such a competitive year that it has to take a back seat, for me, to a few other films. This is one of the years when I have to agree with the Academy and place Lawrence of Arabia on top. "Datedness," meanwhile, doesn't detract from the eccentric genius of The Manchurian Candidate. Is that a complaint against the subject matter or the style of the film? If the former, down go many originally topical films, including my favorites from 1964.

    In any event, my runners-up include Ride the High Country, Le Doulos, Liberty Valance, Pasolini's Mamma Roma, Jacopetti & Prosperi's Mondo Cane, the four-part Italo showcase Boccaccio '70, Richard Fleischer's Barabbas and The Miracle Worker, as well as Mafioso. I've watched L'Eclisse and Bertolucci's La Commare Secca very recently and liked them both, but it's too soon to rank them exactly among my favorites of this extraordinary year.

  4. Samuel - Awesome... glad to see someone else who is a fan of Mafioso! As my gushing in the review probably makes clear, I love it.

    On the top of "datedness" I am in absolute agreement, as I think the term is used in a derogatory fashion all too often. As I've said time and again, some of the greatest works of art are in fact "dated," but it in no way detracts from their greatness in my opinion. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album is dated, as are Elvis' Sun Sessions, but they are still incredible works that I listen to often. The same goes for movies for me -- I can acknowledge that The Manchurian Candidate is dated, but still appreciate it.

    And, in all honesty, in cases such as Cold War films, the dated aspect can sometimes actually be appealing.

    Excellent choices all the way around from both Sam and Samuel. It is a strong year for sure. I still need to see La Commare Secca, as I am a pretty big Bertolucci fan. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it, Samuel (or anyone else for that matter).

  5. Mafioso is a film I have recorded and yet to watch, and have always have heard good thing about it. Melville’s Le Doulos I hope to see soon. With those two off the chart, I have to go with “The Manchurian Candidate”, arguably John Frankenheimer best film and one of Frank Sinatra’s best performances with a great script by George Axelrod.

    I am also fond of Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, a great film by one of my favorite directors. .

    Cape Fear
    Days of Wine and Roses
    Lawrence of Arabia
    Jules and Jim
    The Miracle Worker
    Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
    Knife in the Water
    Ride the High country

  6. John - When you get a chance to watch either Mafioso or Le Doulos, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them. Two great films!

    And I concur with The Manchurian Candidate being Frankeheimer's best film. As I said earlier, it might be dated, but that's actually part of the appeal for me.

  7. I have not seen Mafioso, and look forward to it after reading your essay, but I find that 1962 belongs to Lawrence of Arabia, as do the sixties and perhaps all of the 20th century.