Ask any film school student or well-informed art-house enthusiast to list great Italian film directors and nearly all will respond with the names Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti. To be sure, these auteurs stand at a grand summit of artistry and cultural influence in Italy’s long and storied cinematic history. Inevitably, by virtue of their successes and global authority, there remains a separate division of gifted Italian filmmakers whose contribution to Italian cinema is too often neglected, devalued and underappreciated.

The work of Alberto Lattuada easily falls into this cavernous vault of wonderful but frequently overlooked classic Italian films. During the ’50s and ’60s, Lattuada’s unique and varied blend of understated cynicism, deft humor, and affecting realism proved more popular with general audiences than with the established national tastemakers and film critics — who were vital in championing the careers of Fellini, Antonioni, and the like. Lattuada’s commercial appeal unfairly distracted from and overshadowed his rather formidable artistic talents.

While by no means ignored during his cinematic heyday Lattuada and his films endured a longer waiting period in receiving the kind of critical support and acclaim many of his peers enjoyed. It would take the enthusiasm and encouragement of a newer, younger generation of film scholars and cinephiles for Lattuada’s name to finally be placed back on the select list of notable Italian filmmakers. Without a doubt, modern film audiences are the lucky beneficiaries of this cinematic re-introduction. Additionally, since many will be coming to Lattuada’s work fresh, there is the thrill of discovery that only adds to the overall joy and wonder of viewing his pictures.

Re-polishing gems of the silver screen for expansion on the home entertainment market frequently falls to the experts at the Criterion Collection. A DVD stamped with the Criterion label quite often increases and reaffirms a particular film’s importance in the storied annals of global cinema. Therefore, it is so rewarding that Criterion has decided to showcase Lattuada’s brilliant 1962 film, Mafioso, on DVD.

Mafioso tells the story of Antonio “Nino” Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi), a friendly, hard-working, and well-liked Fiat plant manager. Nino, as a transplanted Sicilian, is living, working, and succeeding in Milan — the beating, boastful, and celebrated commercial heart of Italy. Flanked by his beautiful blonde wife, Marta (Norma Bengell) and their two young (beaming and nearly identical blonde) daughters — Nino would appear to be the perfect postcard picture of Milan’s urbane middle class. His success is viewed, both by him and others, as a testament to Italy’s new and expanding strength. (The implicit message being that even humble men from the South can now be citizens of good standing in the new, modern Italy.)

For his first holiday in years, Nino has decided to take his wife and children to his small hometown in Sicily. Nino, unbound with frenetic anticipation, can barely contain his joy at the prospect of returning home to see his family. Before leaving, however, he is summoned by his boss (who turns out to be from the same region in Sicily) and asked to deliver a small package to a mutual friend. Nino is all too happy to oblige and heads out on his journey with great expectation and enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his wife, Marta, who is markedly less thrilled about their journey southward. Aside from not wanting to travel such a long way, Marta’s dread is compounded by the pressure of having to meet her in-laws for the first time.

On the surface Mafioso is a comedy about familial differences and social divides. Lattuada — drawing on the timeless and well-worn cultural chasm between Italy’s great and “sophisticated” North and its interminably provincial and “backwards” South — takes full advantage of the dark humor and cruel realities that can be extracted from such prejudices. Upon returning home to Sicily Nino must take on multiple roles: showing off his great success as a real Italian to his family and friends and distracting his wife (and himself) from the truth of his humble beginnings.

It is a nimble ballet that Nino performs with tireless energy and great skill but it is clear that he is dancing his way into greater complications. In addition to making the standard visits with his extended family, Nino is obliged to make a call to the local Mafia boss, Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio). A man whose good graces Nino has clearly relied on in the past for his present good fortunes (as suggested by Nino’s delivery of his boss’s gift to Don Vincenzo). While the implication is made of Nino’s childhood connection to this other family, it is clear that his position was peripheral and his role rather limited. For at his core, Nino has and always will be a bighearted, agreeable, loving, and thoroughly decent man.

Nino’s generous and accommodating nature is quickly remembered by the family and the need for his services are shortly ordered. His genuine appreciation for Don Vincenzo’s beneficence makes it all but impossible for Nino to refuse their request of him. The direction this minor detour takes both Nino, and the film, is both surprising and deeply affecting.

With great skill, Lattuada manages to meld infectious joy and humor with a silent and devastating humanity that adds an unexpected complexity and emotional richness to Mafioso. The strength of the film clearly rests on the talented shoulders of Alberto Sordi whose turn as Nino is simultaneously vibrant and subtle. Mafioso refuses easy summation and defies the very genre it helped to establish.

These days, the word classic seems to be attached to everything from candy bars to vacuum cleaners. Separating the zeal of advertisers from the genuine article can be difficult as the word’s value and impact is inevitably diminished when applied with such casual abandon. The importance of any one film — like all art — will always be hostage to the voices of subjectivity and endless debate. Though, in the case of Mafioso it is a term justly applied. Overlooked for too long Mafioso is truly a remarkable, classic film that deserves every accolade, however belated, it receives.

Hopefully, a wider audience will discover this classic on their own as the film is finally available on DVD. The high standards and obsessive attention to detail that define the Criterion Collection result in a superb DVD transfer of Mafioso. An updated digital transfer to high-definition and improved English subtitling greatly enhances the viewer’s understanding of the central narrative, and adds to the overall appreciation and pleasure of the cinematic experience.

Additional DVD extras include: a 1996 interview with Alberto Lattuada conducted by Italian filmmaker Daniele Luchetti; new interviews with the director’s son, Alessandro Lattuada, and wife, the actress Carla Del Poggio; a wonderful gallery of caricatures for the film by the artist Keiko Kimura; trailers for the original Italian release and an updated trailer for the re-release on DVD; and, finally, an interesting and informative booklet with supplemental essays and interviews. With so much additional material it seems odd that no film commentary was recorded for the DVD, but this is a minor complaint as there is so much to enjoy from the film alone.

RATING 8 / 10