By Matt Singer
[Photo: “The Italian,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
The mafia and comedy genres mingle more comfortably than they have any right to in Alberto Lattuada’s “Mafioso,” the latest reclamation project from Rialto Pictures, who no doubt hope to recreate the success of their last discovery, Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows.” They’ll likely come up a little short: though “Mafioso” is arguably a more compelling film, Lattuada doesn’t have Melville’s following or critical standing.
Alberto Sordi plays Antonio Badalamenti, the foreman of a FIAT plant in Northern Italy who returns to his childhood home of Sicily for the first time in eight years to introduce his wife Marta (Norma Bengell) and their two daughters to the rest of the family. The scenes of Antonio’s reunion with his kin is “Mafioso”‘s comedic highpoint, a manic episode of wailing and crying and spontaneous singing punctuated brilliantly by moments of absolute silence, as when Marta awkwardly presents a pair of gloves as a gift to Antonio’s father, who only has one hand.
Though Antonio’s delights in his reunion with his parents and alarmingly mannish sister (whose moustache is far thicker than my own), his happy homecoming slowly turns darker. The island “of the sun and Cyclops” (as Antonio calls it) is also the home to many mafia dons, including Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), who helped Antonio start his career in the north. Don Vincenzo plans to make him an offer he, as they say, cannot refuse. “You cannot leave your old friends behind,” one Sicilian tells Antonio.
Lattuada’s view of home and family is comedic but ultimately bittersweet; Antonio is so excited to show Marta his old stomping grounds and running buddies he is slow to notice the Don’s underhanded machinations (or his own family’s complicity in them). By the time he does, it’s too late to stop them. Antonio is the ultimate cog in the machine: at his job in the factory or amongst the picciotto in Sicily, he is a tiny part of an operation that completely controls his destiny. In the end, Antonio learns as much about Sicily as his wife does. “What can I say?” he tells Marta. “Everything’s changed.”
The existing high watermark for mafia comedies is probably that scene in “The Godfather” where Clemenza says “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” So to say that “Mafioso,” a largely forgotten Italian production from 1962, is the funniest mafia movie I’ve ever seen isn’t exactly shocking praise. But it is true.
“Mafioso” open in New York on January 19th (official site).
Italian in title only, this arty Russian drama by director Andrei Kravchuk blends contemporary orphan politics with “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” Six-year-old orphan Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) is chosen for adoption by a wealthy Italian couple (hence the tile), but he reconsiders his good fortune when the mother of a recently adopted friend comes looking for her son. Instead of accepting the adoption, Vanya decides to find his mother, which means sneaking out of the orphanage, and hopping a train to a city he’s never been, with little more than a street address and a name to go on.
The first half of the film is in the dreary details of Russian orphanage life: peeling paint, dripping water, secondhand clothes, and the double whammy of illiteracy and poverty. The weather is persistently gloomy one establishing shot is so thick with fog you can barely see the orphanage fifteen feet in front of the camera and the residents are gripped by an epidemic of seasonal affective disorder. In the second half, the focus shifts to a more conventional chase film, with Vanya’s dogged and inventive attempts to find his mother and stay ahead of the orphanage trying to track him down and return him to the Italians.
“The Italian” rests entirely on Spiridonov’s tiny, malnourished shoulders, and he gives a performance of such natural beauty that it would make child actors of the American variety bow their heads in collective shame. There isn’t much more to Kravchuk’s film than watching Spiridonov in action, but the kid puts on a JV master class. In another child actor’s hands, the sentimentality could overpower the story, and the irritatingly simplistic score could take away the emotional impact, but you just can’t take your eyes off that damn kid.
“The Italian” opens in limited release on January 19th (official site).