(The Criterion Collection, 3.18.2008)
Nino Badalamenti is a supervisor in a car manufacturing plant who hasn't taken a vacation in over two years. On his way out the door to visit his beloved childhood hometown of Sicily -- with his blonde wife and daughters -- Nino is handed a package by his boss and asked to deliver it to a powerful and influential Sicilian gangster named Don Vincenzo. Once in Sicily, Nino has a hoot seeing friends and family, but his wife has trouble fitting in and is unfairly dismissed as a snob by Nino's family. Even more worrisome, Nino finds himself entangled in an intricate web of secret mafioso dealings and is eventually sent on an unexpectedly... elaborate errand.
Okay, I know that plot synopsis leaves a lot to be desired, but Mafioso is so unique in its balance of moods and story elements, it would be a shame to give away the film's secrets in advance. Needless to say, this is not your run-of-the-mill gangster film. Like any truly great work of genre cinema, Mafioso uses its genre elements to make broader, more resonant points (in this case, about the danger of going home again, weighed down by the attitudes and responsibilities of your new life). It also entertains the hell out of you.
But this more than just a gangster film. Above all, this is an engaging, flavorful, and energetic ensemble comedy with a surprising mix of vitality -- characters running all over the place doing all kinds of interesting things -- and sensitivity. There's genuine insight in these characterizations and a sense of history in the relationships that's both amusing and heartbreaking (the over-the-top love Nino shares with his extended family is genuinely touching). The charismatic lead performance by Alberto Sordi is particularly memorable and the detailed depiction of Sicilian life combines affectionate documentary specificity with breezy, satirical wit.
The film's final section brings to mind the similarly-themed (but darker) Sexy Beast and it's an unexpected shift in tone. Thematically, this conclusion could be said to confuse some of the film's core issues (big city vs. small town Italian life) -- and it's sad to see all those fascinating characters left behind -- but these concluding scenes also expand the film's meaning in mysterious and unexpected ways.
Criterion does a typically bang-up job with the anamorphic, black-and-white transfer, but the extras are light and don't feature any major revelations. First up, we get two 8-minute interviews, one with director Alberto Lattuada's widow, actress Carla Del Poggio and one with his son, Alessandro Lattuada.
Both interviews are too brief to offer the Lattuada primer that those unfamiliar with the celebrated director are looking for and the Del Poggio interview is marred by some confusion about her connection to the movie. Criterion explains that she was Lattuada's wife, the daughter of one of the actors in the film, and an actress, but it took an imdb search for me to determine whether or not she acted in Mafioso (she didn't). It's also a bit difficult to follow the web of relationships she describes in the first few minutes of this interview. Admittedly, this kind of thing is not my forte.
The interview with the director's son has a bit more substance -- including his description of his father's peculiar working relationship with cinematographers and gaffers (he didn't let them do anything) -- but it still lacks the detail most admirers of Mafioso are probably hoping for.
The best extra is Ritratti d'autore, a 17-minute short from 1996 by Italian director Daniele Luchetti. Commissioned to sit down and interview an Italian director of his choosing, Luchetti goes over to Lattuada's messy apartment and has a warm, philosophical chat. While this conversation is still quite general, we do get an illuminating glimpse at Lattuada's personality and thought process. Most intriguingly, Lattuada explains his theory that color "steals reality" from films by making things look too good and agrees with Luchetti that their most valuable quality as filmmakers is their curiosity.
Rounding out the extras is a pair of trailers -- the original Italian trailer and the Rialto re-release trailer from 2007 -- as well as a gallery of caricatures by artist Keiko Kimura. Interestingly, these images look nothing like the (misleadingly heavy-handed) Kimura image that graces the DVD cover.
As an added bonus, Criterion includes a booklet that's a bit more extensive than you'd normally find in one of their single disc releases. In addition to an informative interview with Lattuada, we get a moderately interesting essay by Roberto Chiesi that positions the film in relation to the Italian film industry's historical depiction of the mafia. But Criterion saves the best for first, opening the booklet with an insightful analysis of the film by Phillip Lopate, which pinpoints the film's varied and unusual appeal in just eleven paragraphs (for those keeping track, the significantly-less-insightful review you are currently reading is also eleven paragraphs long).
There's no better way to discover an unheralded gem than a Criterion release and this disc only cements that. Judging from the kind words spoken in the various supplements on this disc, it seems that Alberto Lattuada had several other gems under his belt before he retired from filmmaking in the late eighties and we can only hope that Criterion sees fit to issue some of these at a later date. For the time being, Mafioso is a terrific introduction to this unfairly neglected talent. -- Jonathan Doyle