With their grand gestures, loud voices and freakish families, the characters in Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso (and much of '60s Italian cinema, for that matter) might seem more at home on The Jerry Springer Show than on arthouse movie screens. A boisterous and grotesque satire, this forgotten comic gem is sneakier than it first seems, contrasting the shallow freedoms of modern Italy with the vibrant but unforgiving moral codes of the Old World before delivering a sucker punch at its end.
Uptight Fiat foreman Antonio Badalementi (Fellini stalwart Alberto Sordi) gathers up his wife and kids, and heads south to vacation in his native Sicily. Though he's been away from home for many years, the old country fills Antonio with a giddy sense of nostalgia, inspiring inane boasts ("island of sun and Cyclops, inspiration to all the poets!") and outbursts of song. Once he's there, however, his kinfolk seem more like inbred carnies than beloved famiglia. His ancient amputee of a father brawls with an elderly neighbor; his mustachioed sister struggles to land a husband; a street vendor sells "baby lamb guts"; and boyhood friends leer over his modish blond wife. Still, Antonio bubbles with incomprehensible joy and loyalty about his hometown.
Eventually his affection for the old ways lead Antonio to the home of a local crime boss, Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), for whom he did favors as a boy. The casual reunion turns into a family debt, and before you (and Antonio) know it, the dark undercurrent of Sicilian machismo and cold-blooded honor takes over. This sharp turn twists Lattuada's blustery black comedy into melancholic drama and some audiences may not be prepared.
Lattuada revels in the class dynamics of his story, damning both the sterility of modern living and the insidious corruption of Sicilian traditionalism. Bouncing off Mafioso's silly humor, he slyly indicts the naïveté of Italians who romanticized their flawed past rather than build a meaningful contemporary culture. The two worlds are intractably different and equally flawed. While crossing on the ferry, Antonio explains to his daughters how the technological advances of mainland Italy are finally coming to rural Sicily. He points to the power line that bridges the two Italian worlds, not realizing it's the thinnest of connections.
Mafioso is filled with the kind of actors you never see in movies anymore, actors who have screwed-on mugs and human builds. It's a refreshing vacation from the chiseled perfection of modern Hollywood. But the real reason to watch is Sordi's sublime performance as Antonio. Turning his hunky physique into exuberant and blissfully unaware bluster, he creates an indelible portrait of a decent man who is tragically blinded by his love of home.
In the end, Lattuada's film is a silly farce with a very bitter edge. And much like life, it's funny ... except when it's not.In Italian with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 and 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, April 27 and 28, and at 4 and 7 p.m., Sunday, April 29.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.