Italian Film Festival 2014 - Chicago: 'The Mafia Kills Only in Summer'

This film brings the history of organized crime in Sicily to life, but forgets to do the same for its characters.

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer (La mafia uccide solo d'estate)

Director: Director Pierfrancesco Diliberto
Cast: Alex Bisconti, Ginevra Anton, Pierfrancesco Diliberto, Cristiana Capotondi, Rosario Lisma
Year: 2014

With 90-minutes of runtime, most filmmakers will pick one or two things and try to perfect them. Director Pierfrancesco Diliberto (better known as Pif) orders the whole menu, post-dinner stomachache be damned.

What’s on the menu? For starters, 20 years of Sicilian history, an on-off romance spanning decades, an imaginative young boy’s budding career in journalism, and a whimsical comedy. The Mafia Kills Only in Summer is an ambitious, cross-genre epic, but with the cramped runtime of a romantic comedy, it attempts a whole lot and perfects very little.

From the moment Arturo (Alex Bisconti) is conceived, he’s born into the world with a fascination for organized crime. Well, organized crime and his grade school crush, Flora (Ginevra Antona).

Arturo finds an unexpected hero in Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, and studies the key representatives in Sicilian politics and mafia. When he has the opportunity to conduct an interview for a local newspaper, he chooses General Chiesa and gets a word with him just before he is famously assassinated in 1982.

As Arturo grows older (this personal played by Pif), he continues to circle around the world of organized crime – running into historical figures like Giovanni Falcone, a magistrate that took part in the Maxi Trial and was ultimately killed in a car bombing. And even as an adult, he finds himself competing for Flora’s (Cristiana Capotondi) affection.

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer is named for the humorous response Arturo receives from his father (Rosario Lisma) after he expresses his fears of being killed. Pif is out to establish the cultural paradigm of '70s and '80s Palermo that allowed organized crime to thrive. It seems most of the community was happy to turn a blind eye to mafia violence, and it’s not until the late '80s when the killings become too frequent and disruptive to be ignored.

This effort to bring to life the reign of the Cosa Nostra at a certain place and time is what is leading some to hail the film as one of the best mafia pictures of all time. Arturo’s childhood fascination with the mafia speaks to how someone can grow up idolizing people with cultural power. The conclusions Pif draws, about how Italians can reconcile past mistakes while embracing the intrigue of history for the next generation, are potent and thoughtful.

However, it’s all the other noise going on that makes Pif’s film an ineffective one. The director seems set on a very French sense of whimsy that isn’t successfully implemented. There’s an early CGI scene that follows the internal fertilization process that leads to Arturo’s birth that doesn’t fit in tone or technique with anything else found in the film.

Then, there’s the never-ending circus score made up of a bopping accordion and piano that becomes just maddening in its repetition. Pif is shellacking on quirkiness, but doesn’t back it up with well-written content, so it fails to come off as more than a stylistic varnish. See this year’s Swedish festival favorite, The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, for a strong example of bonding visual whimsy with narrative delight.

Skilled editor Cristiano Travaglioli (The Great Beauty) is the major saving grace, and manages to sort out a cut of this film that hides a lot of the crunching that’s being done to the timeline. Some of his best work comes in the way he inserts Arturo and Flora into the past with archive footage. Wide shots from real life news reels cut into close-ups of the fictional characters participating in protests and the like with filters that convincingly replicate the grainy, filmic look of the period.

Travaglioli can’t filter everything, though, and without additional time to develop its few characters (especially Flora as an adult), The Mafia Kills Only in Summer scratches only the surface in giving us characters to latch on to in any way. The breakneck pace leaves little room for organic moments, and the result is jokes that feel very deliberate and written.

I’m not sure whether biting off this much content with 90-minutes and coming out with a masterpiece is possible by even a master director. As a first timer, Pif sets his sights high, but the intent is lost in the ambition. The Mafia Kills Only in Summer will no doubt please those with a historical interest or education in Sicilian crime, but as a comedy, romance, and drama, it remains underdeveloped and ineffective.

See The Mafia Kills Only in Summer at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, Illinois on Thursday, 27 November at 7:45pm as part of the Italian Film Festival 2014 - Chicago.

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