It’s curious how often mobsters come up in comedy. Perhaps it’s because film has turned them into their own parodies, so often given the same habits and even recurring dialogue that humor is their last shot at originality. It’s hard to say exactly where the likes of Analyze This and Johnny Dangerously came from, though they and many others do draw a little inspiration from 1962’s Mafioso. One could even argue that much of the mafia’s onscreen image goes back to this Italian picture, which predates a certain Coppola heavyweight by a decade. Mafioso might be an influential work, but it’s not a very consistent one, a movie brilliant in spurts and whose parts outgun the whole.
In this felonious farce, Alberto Sordi (I Vitelloni) plays factory foreman Antonio Badalamenti. A man who’s been away from his native Sicily for eight years, Antonio is ecstatic at being able to return with his wife (Norma Bengell) and kids for a two-week respite. But after reconnecting with his family and catching up with his old buddies, a simple errand puts Antonio back in touch with a figure from his past. Still lurking about Antonio’s stomping grounds is Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), a beloved community fixture who regularly dabbles in some dirty dealings. Our hero having worked for him as a youth, the don has a job in store for Antonio, who comes to realize that he might have been better off leaving home after all.
When it comes to Italian comedies, the word “broad” is a sorely lacking description. It seems the language itself has been tailored more for the madcap romp than the soul-searching drama. These two worlds tend not to play well with others, a fact that becomes brutally obvious when Mafioso pits them both in the same sandbox. On the outset, the story sounds like a bad Martin Lawrence comedy; it’s a standard “hometown boy makes good” premise, with Antonio as the well-meaning doofus showing off his accomplishments. But what Mafioso doesn’t do is tinge the story with moronic pratfalls or manipulate you into giving a flip about the characters. In fact, the comedy comes with some societal undercurrents, particularly involving Antonio’s wife. She’s not a one-dimensional harpy, but she’s still a city girl not used to every meal in her hubby’s village being a smorgasbord.
Mafioso is a culture clash at heart, and that director Alberto Lattuada (Variety Lights) tells his story without (if so, then rarely) resorting to stereotypes attests to his respect for the audience. But for everything that Mafioso isn’t, what it actually is turns out to be a dicey alternative. It’s in the third act that the story takes a turn for the dark, as Don Vincenzo tries recruiting crackshot Antonio for an assignment in the States. These scenes effectively establish the mafia’s influence over the characters; with the most vague of threats, Antonio knows exactly what’s at stake if he refuses the gig. The trouble is that as quiet and powerful as these scenes are, they belong in a different movie. The aim is for Antonio to grasp how much he romanticized his old digs, but it doesn’t jibe well when the lesson is crammed so awkwardly against the early comic portions. The film changes emotions on a dime, lacking the build-up and transitional period to ready the viewer for the ultimate message rather than muddle its delivery.
As far as technical details, Mafioso is golden. The acting is solid (if a little overdone on Sordi’s behalf), the cinematography works when the mood’s sunny or somber, and the writing keeps the characters nice and grounded. But if editing truly is the soul of cinema, then Mafioso left its own somewhere on the cutting room floor, a house of cards collapsing for lack of what little glue it needed to stand proud as an art house classic.