While he may be most famous outside of Italy for co-directing Federico Fellini’s first feature Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, 1950), Milan-born Alberto Lattuada had a long career spanning more than four decades and a kaleidoscopic variety of genres and registers. He was equally at ease with crime thrillers, erotic dramas or adaptations of Russian literary giants Pushkin, Gogol and Chekhov. Defending his eclecticism in a 1979 interview, Lattuada argued that while he did indeed take on a variety of different genres, he nonetheless always returned to the same handful of themes. “All the films I’ve made are denunciations of taboos, errors, crystallisations, impositions, injustices”, he noted. “Every kind of imposition makes my blood boil, be it organised (wars, totalitarian ideologies) or just that of the person who barges in front of you on the bus” (1). By 1960, the director had more than a dozen features under his belt, including the film that many believe is his masterpiece, 1952’s Gogol adaptation Il cappotto (The Overcoat). His 1954 film La spiaggia (The Beach), starring Raf Vallone and Martine Carol, showed that Lattuada was as adept with comedy as with drama. He would go on to make a major contribution to the commedia all’italiana (comedy Italian style) in 1962 with Mafioso.
“More a movement than a genre itself”, notes Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, “comedy Italian style consistently presented a prevailing dose of social satire using popular comedic elements to represent contemporary Italian society” (2). Masolino d’Amico has argued that the years between 1960 and 1963 constituted the movement’s golden age and that it occupied an extremely elevated position in the Italian cinematic output of the time (3).
Towards the end of 1960, producer Dino De Laurentiis signed an exclusive deal with the much-loved Roman actor Alberto Sordi. He would star in three films per year for De Laurentiis, having already featured in the latter’s Golden Lion-winning La grande guerra (The Great War, Mario Monicelli, 1959) opposite Vittorio Gassman. In Mafioso, the sixth picture made as part of the deal, Sordi plays Antonio “Nino” Badalamenti, a Sicilian who lives in Milan with his wife and children. He works as a supervisor in an automobile plant and, at the beginning of the film, we see him preparing for a two-week holiday which will see him return to his hometown of Calamo after several years’ absence. Before he leaves, Antonio’s boss at the plant, an Italian-American called Zanchi (Armando Tine), gives him a small package to deliver to mob boss Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio). When Antonio arrives in Calamo, he is called upon by Don Vincenzo to carry out a special mission which, unbeknownst to him, will take him on a whistle-stop trip across the Atlantic.
Mafioso was released a year after Pietro Germi’s Sicilian-set Divorzio all’italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961), and while it may not have that film’s breathless first-person fizz, it is stylistically accomplished nonetheless. Above all, it has that great sense of narrative economy typical of Lattuada (longueurs are scarce in his cinema). Few pictures made on this topic can resist contrasting the modernity of northern Italy with the backwardness and tradition of the south but Mafioso does so with knowing pithiness. What’s more, the film takes place in not two but three distinctive locations (Milan – Calamo – New York) and Lattuada, together with screenwriters Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona and Age & Scarpelli, find much to comically dissect in all three. From Zanchi’s super-modern office (as slinkily modernist as a Bond villain’s lair) and the unfortunate facial hair sported by Nino’s younger sister Rosalia (Gabriella Conti) to the heavily accented Italian spoken by the New York mob.
Upon his arrival in Calamo, Nino visits his relatives and then delivers Zanchi’s package to Don Vincenzo. He then happens to show off his skills as a marksman at a carnival game. “The hunter never loses his skill”, says a grinning Nino, unaware that his prowess has put him in line for a transatlantic assignment – the murder of a Mafia associate in New York. For Don Vincenzo, Nino is perfect for the job – not only is he a skilled marksman, he’s outside the circle of known hitmen, thus limiting – or at the very least delaying – the chance of reprisals. Once the job has been carried out, who would be able to trace Nino back to an automobile factory in Milan? (4)
Unable to refuse Don Vincenzo’s request, Nino is bundled into a crate and loaded onto a cargo plane. Once again Lattuada’s narrative economy comes to the fore – he puts us with Nino in the complete darkness of the crate with only thin shafts of light passing through slits in the wood. We hear Nino talking to himself, wondering where he’s being taken. Lattuada then cuts to a warehouse where Nino is released, only to be quickly driven out in the back of a roofed convertible sandwiched between two straight-faced mobsters. When the convertible roof is taken down, composer Piero Piccioni’s brassy theme storms onto the soundtrack as Nino’s senses are overcome by the New York cityscape (as skyscrapers stretch high toward the heavens, we pass a giant billboard featuring Sophia Loren in Boccaccio ’70; the Elvis Presley film Follow That Dream is playing at the local cinema). Once he has carried out the deed, Nino is shipped back to Sicily and, after a brief spell of unease, he is seen back in the Milan automobile plant, clipboard in hand. “If only they were all like you, we’d all live better”, he’s told as he reports back to work. After a mere 48 hours as a mafioso, Lattuada’s protagonist slips back into his life as a diligent, unimpeachable family man. “Nino’s character is that of a man who swallows his crime, never to speak of it again”, Lattuada noted. “He had to have the face of [an actor like] Sordi because it’s rare that audiences accept a crime that goes unpunished” (5).
Mafioso will be screening at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) as part of a program stream on commedia all’italiana. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website.
1. Lattuada in Aldo Tassone, Parla il cinema italiano, vol. 1, Il Formichiere, Milano, 1979, p. 172.
2. Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, Comedy Italian Style: The Golden Age of Italian Film Comedies, Continuum, New York, 2008, p. 2.
3. Masolino d’Amico, La commedia all’italiana, Il Saggiatore, Milano, 2008, p. 152.
4. A similar device is used in the HBO series The Sopranos when hitmen are flown over from Naples to carry out murders in New Jersey. In an episode from 2006 called “Luxury Lounge” for instance, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) uses this method to dispose of Rusty Millio (Frankie Valli).
5. Lattuada in Goffredo Fofi, Alberto Sordi: L’Italia in bianco e nero, Mondadori, Milano, 2005, p. 151.