Who could ever hate these guys? (From Goodfellas, 1990)
What do you think of when you watch American films about the Sicilian Mafia? Does the idea of honor, family, and community ever come to mind? In Mafia movies, such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, or Donnie Brasco, it is easy to see why the audience would cheer for Michael Corleone as he conducts his mass retribution in the final act, laugh at the ridiculously violent nature of Tommy DeVito, or sympathize with Benjamin Ruggiero (“Lefty”) whenever he confesses to Donnie about his discontent with being at the bottom of the Mafia totem pole. Through these Mafia films, filmmakers have given the audience glorified ideas that the organization possess any aspect of humanity, where they honor their word, enjoy a tight and enjoyable familial relationships, and help the needy through means that the law cannot help with. The real Sicilian Mafia has none of these traits.
These false ideas pertaining to the function of the criminal syndicate were first perpetuated by an 1890 Sicilian opera called Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry). The Mafioso character Alfio is depicted rightfully challenging the main character Turiddu to a knife duel for sleeping with his wife, giving the character a “justification” to murder. This theatrical impression of the Cosa Nostra (Sicilian Mafia) has allowed this organization to thrive under a false understanding and has allowed it to corrupt the naivety of the American audience. I am not saying that American movies about the Mafia are bad films, but they are bad messages when it comes to portraying the true nature of the Sicilian syndicate. While Americans have only been partially acquainted with the Mafia’s presence in our society, Italy is fully imbedded with this sinister cancer that controls the government and fear. Fortunately in recent times, several new Italian and Sicilian filmmakers have been creating movies that have dismantled this false misconception. Here are three excellent films that not only depict the true lack of humanity the Mafia exhibits (the best part is that all of these films are based on true stories), but three great films in general:
1. I Cento Passi (One Hundred Steps)
Young Peppino planning his future.
This film is the remarkable tale of Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato, a real life communist activist of Cinisi, Sicily who died under a mysterious circumstance. In this movie, the audience is introduced to Giuseppe’s uncle (a local Mafia Don) being murdered by a car bomb planted by the rival Gaetano “Tano” Badalamenti (who was one of the real life operators behind the infamous heroin “Pizza Connections” that trafficked massive amounts of heroin through American pizzerias). Director Marco Tullio Giordana wastes no time with unnecessary scenes in I Cento Passi, where he establishes the innocence taken away from Peppino’s life and Peppino returning the favor by exposing the Mafia’s defecation of the innocent Sicilian landscape (the unnecessary curvy highways, excessive airports, and the faulty construction of collapsible apartment buildings). This film is not only great due to the biographical references, but is a great film through sincere performances, great pacing, and wonderful cinematography that captures the Sicilian vista. Click here to see the trailer (needs English subtitles).
2. La siciliana ribelle (The Sicilian Girl)
Rita breaking Omertà.
The Sicilian Girl tells the unheard story of Rita Mancuso (based on the real life Rita Atria), the daughter of a murdered Don whose testimony was crucial convicting many Mafioso. At the age of eleven, Rita witnesses her father (the controlling Don of Balata) and brother’s death at the hands of a rival Mafia family. Rita decides to take the path of vengeance towards the rival Mafia family because she believed that her father was a good Mafioso. But through her journey working with Paolo Borsellino (a famous Sicilian magistrate that worked with Giovanni Falcone), she becomes disillusioned and realizes there was nothing good about her Mafioso father and brother. Besides from having an interesting plot, this film really stands out because it deals with the struggles of women within the Mafia. In Rita’s mother we can see a brainwashed woman who is so committed to Omertà (Mafioso code of silence) that she considers her daughter dead for helping the police against the Mafia families. The way Marco Amenta handles the ending is a real tear jerker, for we can see both the loss and anger that Rita’s mother exhibits in the final few shots (I won’t spoil the ending completely). Click here to see the trailer.
Marco and Ciro dooming themselves.
This is truly the case of “saving the best for last”. Matteo Garrone’s adaptation of Robert Saviano’s journalistic book is truly a haunting movie. This movie gives various perspectives that give a grim account of the Camorra in the Neopolitan region, ranging from two hapless wanna-be gangsters, a frustrated waste management employee, a poor delivery boy, an aging middleman, and a desperate tailor. What do all these stories have in common? These people are all victims who are surrounded by even more victims of the Camorra. There is not one shot that resembles anything glamorized, but only the grainy, dirty, and doomed environments that show no hope for anything better. All the characters that get involved with the Neapolitan organization either witness death or face death. It should be noted that the performances are not exaggerated in the least bit, for Garrone try to convey how these situations are in reality. For a movie and book that is so great, it is a shame Robert Saviano has to in witness protection for the rest of his days. Click here to see the trailer.
Though The Sicilian Girl and One Hundred Steps both have a romanticized version of the real life main characters, it should be noted that both films focus on the heroes, rather than turning the sinister mobsters into the heroes. I suppose that Americans are not subjected to Cosa Nostra or the Camorra to the extent that Italians or Sicilians have been, since these syndicates do have such a great control Italian politics, economy, and daily life. These movies find the right people to go behind and support because they had sacrificed their lives to highlight the organized terror, so that their examples can inspire us to stand up against the wrongs in society. But some films, like Gomorrah, gives you just a sobering truth; a real gaze of the Mafia.