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Under the Sicilian Sun

Mafioso is a black comedy that doesn’t go for the easy laugh. The Italian? A little more bleak.

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As Nino, the prosperous Milan auto-plant foreman who brings his lovely blonde wife and adorable blonde daughters to meet his gnarled Sicilian family, Alberto Sordi has a foolish hopefulness that’s hugely endearing. Sordi resembles Peter Sellers in “straight” roles: His Nino is a little doughy, never as suave as he thinks he is, and never quite the master of his space. Nino barely registers the way the Mediterranean sun scorches his fair-skinned spouse or how his female relatives—thick, dark, and hairy—glower at her as she gingerly picks at a succession of groaning plates of food. More significant, he doesn’t catch the meaningful glances cast his way by rough-hewn men—Sicilians eaten away by tribal hatreds. Nino is proud of his blondes, of his job at the ultramodern Fiat factory, and of his old-world heritage, too. The elements mesh in his capacious inner world. Why shouldn’t they harmonize in life?

Needless to say, the joke is on Nino in Mafioso, the latest canny resurrection by Rialto Pictures (which had a banner year in 2006 with Army of Shadows). Made in 1962 and barely released in the U.S., the film is being sold as a “black comedy”—an elastic label that generally means “funny” and “someone dies.” The term doesn’t quite do Mafioso justice. Yes, it’s funny and, okay, someone dies. But the director, Alberto Lattuada, came of age with the Italian neorealists, and he doesn’t whack you upside the head with either slapstick or gore. He gets laughs—and creeps—out of the tension between his charmingly oblivious hero and this real and ominous setting. The feudal Sicilian hill town doesn’t feel like a zany menagerie manufactured for a movie: Nino’s childhood friends are dead or in prison or lolling, out-of-work, around the beach, gazing in wonder at the shapely white limbs of his trophy wife. Shot in black and white, this is a place of malignant light and deep shadows—and of capos who know more about Nino’s life than he does.

It would be wrong to give away the climax—or even much more of the premise. But it’s fair to say that as Nino trudges up the hill to deliver a gift from his Fiat boss (a Sicilian by way of Newark, New Jersey) to the town’s capo di capi, Don Vincenzo, he can’t begin to conceive of the odyssey he’s about to take or of the forces about to take him. That’s the beauty of Mafioso: that what begins as a comedy of disconnection becomes a tragicomedy of connection—of roots that go deep and branches that span continents. We’ve since endured Mafia farces like Analyze This, along with culture-class in-law farces like Meet the Parents. Mafioso is somewhere between them and The Godfather. It’s a farce with a bitter edge—a farce with no release.

The title of The Italian is ironic: It’s the nickname given to Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), a 6-year-old Russian boy in a frigid Leningrad home for orphaned and abandoned children—a real Dickensian hellhole. Small and blond, with watchful eyes, Vanya has just been successfully “showcased”—i.e., spruced up and paraded before an enraptured Italian couple looking to adopt. As soon as the paperwork goes through, he’ll get to leave this blighted place for the land of pasta and olive trees. Everyone wants the life that Vanya will have—except, increasingly, Vanya. After a distraught mother shows up looking for a boy who has already been adopted (she staggers out into the snow with the drunken headmaster’s cries of “Too late, bitch!” ringing in her ears), Vanya realizes that somewhere out there is the mother who gave him up—and who must long to be reunited with her son.

I was utterly gripped by The Italian. The only problem is that I was rooting for the bad guys. As Vanya tries to give the (admittedly unsavory) adoption brokers the slip, they yell that he’s crazy, that people would kill for a chance to grow up with a loving, well-off mom and dad in a warm country. And I wanted to scream, “Catch that little bastard! Drug him! Chain him to his plane seat! He’ll thank you someday!”

How are we meant to respond? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe the way I did, at first. The director, Andrei Kravchuk, hardly romanticizes his country—here depicted as sunless and teeming with alcoholics, muggers, and scrap yards. But I think we’re supposed to recognize the purity of the boy’s childlike faith and tenacity of his love for the mother he has never seen and to root for him to keep from becoming Italian. I think The Italian is supposed to be A.I. without robots.

On those terms—which I regard, for the record, as insane—the movie is a heart wrencher. The cinematography, by Alexander Burov, is bluish and deep-toned, as if sharpened by cold, and Alexander Kneiffel’s score relies on the mournful plink of piano keys—it might be the work of a child trying to pick out a lullaby. Spiridonov has one of those soft little faces onto which you can project whatever you like—an Oliver Twist face. And along those same (classic) lines there’s a child gang that works out of the boiler room, with a Bill Sykes–like thug and a good-hearted Nancy-esque prostitute (Olga Shuvalova). No one in The Italian is too unsympathetic, not even the nominal villainess, a chubster adoption broker who calls herself Madam (Maria Kuznetsova). How could she—how could anyone—believe in Vanya’s ridiculous quest? Even the Russian Tourism Board would want to see him on a plane to Rome.

Many talented directors have a Breaking and Entering in them, and some—like Anthony Minghella—have the misfortune of being successful enough to have it green-lit. This is an ambitious midlife-crisis movie that valiantly weaves together big themes, among them the nagging guilt of the successful, wealthy artist. In this case he’s an architect (Jude Law) not a filmmaker, and he lives with a beautiful half-Swede (Robin Wright Penn) who has an autistic daughter. Is he wrong to chafe under his obligations toward a girl who isn’t his? Should he give something back to the poor and unfortunate? If he does—by setting up offices in a bad neighborhood—and he’s robbed by the people whose lives he’s working to improve, should he have the underage culprit arrested or should he sleep with the boy’s gorgeous mom (Juliette Binoche)? The struggles of the artist: They are universal.

Mafioso
Directed by Alberto Lattuada. Rialto pictures. NR.

The Italian
Directed by Andrei Kravchuk. Sony Pictures Classics. PG-13.

Breaking and Entering
Directed by Anthony Minghella. MGM. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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