Director: Alberto Lattuada
Screenplay: Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli (based on a story by Bruno Caruso)
Stars: Alberto Sordi (Antonio Badalamenti), Norma Bengell (Marta), Gabriella Conti (Rosalia), Ugo Attanasio (Don Vincenzo), Cinzia Bruno (Donatella), Katiusca Piretti (Patrizia), Armando Tine (Dr. Zanchi), Lilly Bistrattin (Dr. Zanchi's Secretary), Michèle Bailly (Young Baroness), Francesco Lo Briglio (Don Calogero), Carmelo Oliviero (Don Liborio)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: Italy
MafiosoIn the popular imaginary, the idea of the Italian mafia has been fueled in large part--if not entirely--by movies and television. When people think of the mafia, they immediately think of the pulpy, epic grandeur of The Godfather (1972), the high-octane rise-and-fall rush of GoodFellas (1990), or the Freudian melodrama of The Sopranos (1999-2007). Those of an older generation might remember the subversive yet moralistic thrills of the classic gangster trio: The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932). Of course, what all these films have in common is not only their Hollywood pedigree, but also the fact that they are all about the American mafia. Granted, The Godfather and its sequel both had significant passages that took place in Sicily, the birthplace of the mafia, but they are ultimately about the rise of the Don in the U.S. In other words, they are all American stories.

Thus, the mafia, though spawned in Italy, has developed cinematically as a primarily American genre convention. Looking back over the history of Italian cinema, I was surprised to find that there are precious few films that deal with the mafia either directly or indirectly prior to the 1970s (i.e., post-Godfather). In fact, a cursory search at the Internet Movie Database shows a grand total of three movies made in Italy with the keyword “mafia” prior to 1960: 1949's I Fuorilegge (The Outlaws), 1949's In nome della legge (In the Name of the Law), and 1959's Vento del Sud (South Wind). Scanning through a number of books on Italian cinema turned up only a few references. For whatever reason, Italian filmmakers were not depicting the mafia in their films.

That is, until the early 1960s. The year 1962 saw the release of two seminal Italian films about the mafia with completely different approaches: Francesco Rosi's documentary-like Salvatore Guilano, which used the murder of the eponymous Sicilian bandit to explore the collusion among the government, the military, and the mafia in the postwar struggle for control of Sicily, and Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso, a pitch-black comedy about a respectable businessman rediscovering that his Sicilian roots are deeply entangled with organized crime.

In this sense, Mafioso is the more daring film, taking a deeply serious subject about an ancient criminal tradition and mixing it with fish-out-of-water comedy and close-to-the-bone cultural dissonance. It's not that Mafioso makes fun of the Cosa Nostra; quite the contrary, in fact, the film respects the criminal element and the danger it represents. When we come to Mafioso's climax, we realize just how far the film stretches from outright comedy to violent brutality. The shift in tonal gears is gradual, though, immersing us first in the cultural comedy before slowing drawing us into the film's second act, which finds the native son bumbling his way into an offer he can't refuse.

The central character is Antonio “Nino” Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi), who lives in Milan, works as a foreman in an auto factory, and is married with two young daughters. He is, in every sense of the word, respectable, which is what makes the casting of Sordi, one of postwar Italy's finest comic actors, such a perfect casting choice: His dexterous screen presence conveys a fundamentally insecure man struggling to keep the surface calm. When we first see him in the auto factory, he is like a refined drill sergeant, crisply keeping everything in perfect check. But, when he meets with his boss (Armando Tine) we see just how eager he is to please, a quality that comes to a full boil when he takes his wife, Marta (Norma Bengell), and his daughters to meet his Sicilian family for the first time.

In these early sequences, the perennially eclectic director Alberto Lattuada squeezes every drop of culture-clash comedy imaginable, from an embarrassing stop in front of a wake for a mafia victim, to the Badalamenti family's ridiculously overwhelming dinner (Marta lights up a cigarette--a no-no for a woman in Sicily--thinking the meal is over when, in fact, they've just eaten the first course). Visually, Lattuada sets this up by starting the film in an auto factory--a mechanized wonderland of efficient, modern production--which then contrasts sharply with the ancient Sicilian village that looks like it hasn't changed in several hundred years and is populated by young men who seem to have no employment. Antonio's mother is cartoonishly suspicious, his father is genial and inviting, and his female cousin has a moustache. All of this is fodder for cultural stereotypes, but Lattuada makes it work as a whole universe. Nothing seems out of place, including Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), the town's capo di capi to whom Antonio drags his family to pay respect and ends up with much more than he bargained for.

Shot entirely on location in Milan, Sicily, and, later, New York City, Mafioso blends an effective neorealist aesthetic with the comedy of embarrassment, turning it into something more than just a poke at the underbelly of Italian society. In depicting the culture clash between northern and southern Italy, prewar and postwar generations, and the effects of modernization on old traditions, Mafioso is about much more than its title suggests. Granted, it will likely be remembered best as one of the first Italian-made films to not only depict the Cosa Nostra directly, but also to demythologize it. However, to see it as that and that only would be to miss the amusing and moving depths of Lattuada's nightmarish comedy of manners, one that has been overlooked for far too long.

Mafioso Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioItalian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • 1996 interview with director Alberto Lattuada by filmmaker Daniele Luchetti
  • New video with interview with actress Carla Del Poggio
  • New video interview with Alessandro Lattuada
  • Trailers for the original Italian release and the 2007 U.S. rerelease
  • Gallery of promotional caricatures by artist Keiko Kimura
  • New essays by Phillip Lopate and Roberto Chiesi and a 1982 interview with Alberto Lattuada
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 18, 2008

    Mafioso has been given a solid new high-definition transfer from the original 35mm negative. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the image looks extremely good: well-defined, good detail, nice palette of grays, and virtually no visual blemishes to suggest that the film is more than 45 years old. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical negative soundtrack and digitally restored, sounds very sharp and clear throughout.
    Alberto Lattuada is already represented in the Criterion Collection via his directorial collaboration with Federico Fellini on Variety Lights, and perhaps because that disc was completely bare-bones, Criterion has centered almost all the supplements on Mafioso around the director. First up we get a 1996 interview (15 min.) with Lattuada by filmmaker Daniele Luchetti, which was made as part of the anthology documentary Ritratti d'autore. Sadly, Lattuada passed away in 2005, so he couldn't appear in any new supplements. However, there are two 8-minute interviews, one with Lattuda's wife, actress Carla Del Poggio, and one with his son, Alessandro Lattuada, both of whom discuss his work and what he was like as a person. The disc is rounded out with trailers for the original Italian release and the 2007 U.S. re-release, as well as a gallery of promotional caricatures by artist Keiko Kimura. The insert booklet contains new essays by Phillip Lopate (on the film itself) and Roberto Chiesi (about the film's relationship to the mafia) and an interview with Lattuada excerpted from a 1982 book by Claudio Camerini.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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