Mafioso (1962)

2007-03-09 (Limited release)

Officious in his white coat, Nino Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi) stands over a line worker at the Milano Fiat factory where he presides as foreman, his instructions crisp, his clipboard at the ready. Efficient and suitably compensated, Nino is proud of himself, and on this particular day, on his way out of town. He’s taking his beautiful blond wife Marta (Norma Bengell) and two young daughters to meet his family in Sicily, and he’s sure that the encounter will go according to plan, like everything else in his life.

And yet… just as he’s about to leave, Nino hears an announcement in the parking lot: his boss, Dr. Zanchi (Armando Tine), calls him up to his office. A fellow Sicilian born in New Jersey, Zanchi has a present for the local don in Nino’s hometown of Calamo, carefully wrapped and unmistakably meaningful. As the two men sit on opposite sides of Zanchi’s formidable desk, a microphone on a stand looms in the frame, as a control panel on the boss’ side resembles a car’s dashboard: it’s an utterly au courant, sleek emblem of his authority. As Nino stands to leave, he has to remind Zanchi to open the sliding, knobless door. For an auto manufacturer, you might note, Zanchi has an extraordinary security system.

Though Nino doesn’t appear to notice this bit of excess, it’s exactly the sort of detail that makes Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso remarkable. First released in 1962, this dark comedy is brilliantly odd, combining neorealist and broadly modernist aesthetics, its black and white compositions so ahead of their time that they still look more inventive and complex than today’s films, some 40 years later. As Nino sets forth on the vacation that will redefine him in every possible way, he appears in sharply angled, deeply shadowed close-ups, both abstract and dense with imminent consequence.

For, as competent and pompous as Nino appears, he’s not quite clued in on the nuances of his own existence. As he and Marta rush to gather together the girls and their bags, making their way out of the city via a series of vehicles — train, ferry, cab — he’s barely able to contain his excitement. “Island of the sun and Cyclops,” he announces gleefully, “This is Sicily, hospitable and joyful!” Marta’s slightly less enthusiastic, sensing disapproval: a lengthy greeting scene shows the many uncles, cousins, and children assembled to kiss and embrace the visitors, the women’s black scarves and men’s black caps making them seem indistinguishable (Nino mistakes an aunt for his mother, both their faces covered by white handkerchiefs as they struggle to contain their tears of joy). When Nino hears they’re to sleep in the great silver bed — placed specially in his parents’ foyer — he’s thrilled by the “old custom” even as Marta looks embarrassed. She’s further discouraged when the gifts she’s brought don’t go over quite as she’d hoped (a pair of gloves for Nino’s father, missing a hand following a shooting “accident”) and Nino’s mother casts a dark look when she smokes a cigarette at the lunch table (Marta thinks the meal is over, though they’ve only made it through the antipasti).

The film offers up these mini-culture clashes as comedy, the old and the new, the South and the North. Nino tends to miss the tensions, however, seeing only the perfect coming together of his two worlds. He drags Marta and the girls along what seem endless blocks in order to arrive at the home of Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio) in order to deliver Zanchi’s gift. As they make their way through the heat of the day, his family trotting along, Nino understands the basics of Calamo etiquette, meaning that when an old friend tries to greet him on the street, Nino ignores him; but he seems to have no notion of what’s at stake in such a gesture, that he’s taking a side against the man whom Marta describes as “the man who betrayed his friends.”

This, of course, is the aspect of his Calamo heritage that Nino doesn’t get, that he’s part of and indebted to a mafia family. Sordi’s face is relentlessly open, smiling, animated, accepting all invitations as if they’re just what they seem. When Vincenzo’s second, Don Liborio (Carmelo Oliviero), has him show off his skills at a fairgrounds shooting booth, Nino thinks he’s just reliving their childhood fun. But Lattuada keeps acute focus on the details that Nino misses — Liborio’s grim approval of Nino’s marksmanship, the two dons’ exchange of glances as they arrange for Nino to go on a two-day “hunting trip.”

This trip comprises Mafioso‘s economical, compelling commentary on the intersections of business and family, present and past, art and violence. Nino’s packed up in a crate to travel to America, where he’s instructed to “deliver a letter.” The journey itself is an ordeal, an abrupt coming to consciousness rendered in jaunty visual shorthand — shadows passing over the slats of the crate, jet engine sounds indicating profound dislocation, and a quick ride through the city granting Nino brief, ignorant glee: the buildings jut up at grand angles, the traffic seems at once swarming and admirably ordered, a billboard trumpets the glory of Sophia Loren (“She’s hot!” observes Nino to his grumpy American escort).

When at last he’s set down on a sidewalk, en route to his appointment, Nino is accosted by a drunken man (Hugh Hurd). “I got a right to use the hygienic services of a public bar,” he asserts, having been put out on the street. Distracted, Nino tries to put him off, but the guy insists, ratcheting up his rhetoric and insisting that Nino attend: “What does the Bible say?” he implores, none of his English language comprehensible to Nino. “Your silence affronts me, sir! Are you by any chance a dirty radical?” It’s a brief, sharp bit of tragicomic business that only appears unrelated to Nino’s dire plot. He has no idea who he is, and even when he finds out, he’s committed to silence.

RATING 8 / 10