TV series, like The Sopranos, and films, such as Casino and The Godfather, have fueled plenty of interest in how the American Mafia operates. But Excellent Cadavers won’t leave you joking around and doing your best Marlon Brando impression. Nor will it have you quoting witty Tony Soprano lines. Instead, it will leave you stunned at how seemingly all-powerful the Italian Mafia is.
Marco Turco directs this bloody crime history, which is based on Alexander Stille’s book, with an unflinching eye. It’s as much a story about two good guys, prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, as it is about organized criminals. Both men were high-ranking attorneys, at least until the mob assassinated them. In addition to the various crooks, the Italian government also comes off looking particularly bad. Had men like Falcone and Borsellino not put their lives on the line, the Mafia infiltration in Italy would have been even worse – if such a horrible scenario is even imaginable.
One of this film’s pivotal chapters is titled “The Maxi Trial”. It delves into one of the biggest trials in Italian history, where many of the biggest and meanest Mafia figures appeared in court. But in order to insure some semblance of security, the courtroom was situated inside prison gates—in a building guarded by tanks. Journalists and politicians in the United States often use military terminology, such as The War On Drugs, to describe high profile police campaigns. But this film segment shows that this Mafia trial was truly held in a war zone, where military precautions were an absolute necessity.
Turco gives photojournalist Letizia Battaglia a lot of screen time, and with good reason. Battaglia chronicled the Mafia’s reign of terror in Palermo over a lengthy period of time via her stark, black and white photographs. Some of these are sickeningly brutal. Others capture the shocked faces of loved ones and bystanders, as crime victims lay motionless on city sidewalks. For example, there’s a photo of Communist Party leader, Pio La Tore and his driver, Rosario di Salvo, bleeding all over the driver’s seat of a car. But equally moving is the shot of a pre-teen, with her mouth wide open crying. Who can imagine the horror she must have experienced, or how that experience haunted the rest of her life?
Although this is an English language film, many of its interviews with Italians are conducted in Italian and use subtitles. Some of these conversations are current, such as various sit-downs with Battaglia, while others are comprised of older news footage.
This package’s bonus features are few. There are brief written biographies of Stille and Turco, as well as Battaglia’s photo gallery. This section also includes the film’s trailer. But with such fascinating subject matter, we can always use more information.
Sadly, there is no happy ending to this story. As the documentary points out, approximately 80 percent of Italian businesses pay protection money—even to this day. It is suggested that the Mafia has become so ingrained in Italian culture that it’s nearly impossible to root it out completely. So while much of the gruesome killing has subsided, at least for now, crime families still hold influence over high powers in Italian government.
For those steeped in Mafia movie lore, Excellent Cadavers does not play out like a soap opera, with intimate details about family loyalty and offers that cannot be refused. Instead, it’s a frank and emotionless chronology that doesn’t require a lot of onscreen drama to make its points. The details speak for themselves. And for those who have always wondered where the whole Mafia phenomenon came from, this is a work that gives a detailed history of the American Mafia’s origins. The Mob may make a big noise in America, but it positively rules Italy. And that’s scarier than any possible Mafia film.