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Origins of the Mafia

(History Channel; US DVD: 27 Mar 2007)

Notwithstanding the perpetual and persistent American fascination with and appetite for all things Mafia related, it is still hard to countenance the belated (by 30 years) release of Origins of the Mafia, especially under the auspices of the A&E Network and the History Channel. I’m not sure exactly what this series is supposed to be, but historical, artistic, or entertaining it is not. I guess someone is banking that this perennial interest, when coupled with deep pockets and gullibility, will justify the existence and eventual purchase of this two disc set. Huh? What’s that? Oh yes – a sucker is born every minute…

Composed of five tenuously connected historical vignettes, this Italian produced television mini-series alleges to uncover the obscure origins and evolution of the Mafia in Sicily, but really presents itself as tepid and almost unintelligible period costume dramas that only tangentially touch upon the secret history of an organization and culture that valued secrecy and silence above all else. Though supposedly based in actual documentation – court records, local histories, notes of governors, and the like – Origins of the Mafia’s narratives never seem anything more than the slight musings of a Romantically-inclined mind entirely lacking in imagination or scholarship. The opening and closing narrations (by the deceptively scholarly voiced Robert Johnson) of each episode serve to briefly establish contexts for what proceeds on the screen, but aside from providing a few dates or rattling off the names of the historical players, they are of negligible value at best.


The stories are unfocused and fragmented, wanting to dramatize pivotal moments in the development of the Mafia, but really just confusing any attempt at understanding. While usually it’s better to show rather than tell, in this case a bit more exposition, some sort of historical groundwork, would have been welcome. There’s no doubt that the history of the Mafia is a fascinating and enthralling one, but you’d never know it from watching any of these episodes.


Opening in 1556 with the story of Sicily’s Gramigano family feuding with and ultimately besting the ruling Spaniards’ authority, what should be a case of a representative example throwing deeper societal developments into historical relief quickly turns into something verging very closely to camp (and not even entertaining camp). Rather than going for a welcomely staid reenactment complemented by interstitial narration, this episode is rife with buffoonish over-/under-acting, stiff dialogue, and a so-awful-he’s-brilliant leering villain who resembles no one so much as Tim Curry in lip smacking Frank-n-Furter mode. It’s pretty darn hard to feel anything resembling historical gravitas when you keep humming “Sweet Transvestite” to yourself.

The episodes get better (or, at least, less awful) in the middle stretch, especially when the series settles into the middle of the 19th century, which seems to be the most fertile period of the Mafia’s evolution. The stories here highlight the three way struggle between the poor Sicilian peasantry, the ever revolving cast of foreign governors, and the rising class of dignified criminals that seeks to exploit, and ultimately rule over, both. There is some dawning understanding here of just why the Mafia developed as it did in Sicily, mostly as a response to continual foreign rule for centuries, as well as the rapid acceleration of the disintegration of traditional ways of life in the mid-1800s. Rogue power, which may have diffused on the mainland, coalesced and solidified in Sicily, where it had no run off, and was, if not actually sanctioned, at least condoned by the local population. 


Sicily seems at once especially prone to both anarchic, violent chaos and hopeless servility, a perfect cauldron for the cultivation of a respectable criminal class, ruling from behind the scenes. These themes, which emerge best in the generational story of the bonds between a declining family of nobility and how they fall under the thrall of the family who used to oversee their land, all in the wake of Garibadli’s rise to power in Italy, suggest a possible inroad for those seeking a greater understanding. But, true to form, Origins of the Mafia squanders any scant promise it may have had in its silly and melodramatic final episode.

Produced in 1976, Origins of the Mafia owes its…ahem… origins, and impetus, no doubt, to the popularity of The Godfather and its sequel, a connection all but formalized by the series’ employment of composer Nino Rota (a variant on the “Godfather Waltz” underscores each episode) and use of the same iconic text for the title and credit sequences as The Godfather. And yet formally, Origins of the Mafia resembles nothing so much as the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone –  not in execution or theme (not by a long shot), but in conception and design—an Italian production featuring mostly Italian actors (who are all dubbed into English) interspersed with random American and/or British actors speaking English. 


Shot on location in Sicily (which really is quite lovely, in all its pastoral harshness), the episodes are gritty, dusty, cheap, but nonetheless authentic. And yet where the foreign setting and aesthetic of Leone’s films transformed a traditionally American genre into a sort of universal poetics of violence, Origins of the Mafia, in trying to bring its national story back to its home turf, only makes you realize all the more that Mafia stories might be best left to the Americans.

I have no idea to whom Origins of the Mafia would appeal, though I know whom A&E is banking on. Lacking cathartic violence or memorable characters; given little time to develop its themes in any sort of coherence, context, or depth; and totally void of the sort of epic scope it so desperately is straining for, this sad little miniseries probably would’ve been best left on the shelf, as lost to history and memory as much of the Mafia’s history may be doomed to be. Though, I suppose, there might be something entirely apt in a shoddy Mafia DVD set swindling some unwary fan’s time and money on this inconsequential tripe. A pretty good scam after all, I guess.

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