You can't go home again. Or, if you're Nino Badalamenti, you sure as hell shouldn't.
Nino's a good Sicilian boy who made it big in Milan. He's got a comfortable job as an auto factory foreman, a gorgeous sophisticated wife and two adorable daughters. Now he can't wait to go back home to show off his success and bask n everyone's admiration. Literally on his way out the door, his boss asks him to do him a small favor: deliver a package to Don Vincenzo in Sicily. Nino gladly accepts. Big mistake.
Nino's problems begin before he ever leaves home. His wife Marta is used to the finer things in life, and doesn't want to slum it down south. But nothing will spoil Nino's good time. With his family in tow, Nino returns home and happily greets his entire family. Marta stares in silent horror as one Sicilian after another pours out of a tiny shack as if they were tumbling out of a clown car. Mom and dad each look approximately as old as time itself; sister Rosalia has a lovely moustache. Marta's patience is further tested when they have to share a tiny room with the kids and a tasty chicken. Bad turns to worse and quickly to worst once Nino delivers his package to Don Vincenzo, the town's great patriarch. Once Don Vincenzo makes Nino an offer he can't refuse, Nino's true Sicilian pride will be put to the ultimate test.
Nino is played affably by Italian comedy star Alberto Sordi, an everyman with the easy charm of a Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks. Sordi makes all of Nino's little foibles irresistibly endearing; even his vanity plays as an innocent affectation, and provides a much-needed identification point for the audience when the self-styled big shot finds himself lost in a world of much bigger-shots. The Sicilian cast is populated with wonderful character actors who are convincing even while playing stereotypes. Norma Bengell, as the shrewish wife, doesn't get quite as much to work with though she plays "uptight" with aplomb.
Director Alberto Lattuada creates the same caricatured Sicily as seen in the films of Pietro Germi ("Seduced and Abandoned," released by Criterion last year, being the first that leaps to mind) and many other Italian directors of the 50s and 60s. This North/South schism no doubt plays differently for non-Italian audiences than it does for Italian audiences. Superficially, at least, it bears some resemblance to some of the North/South stereotypes seen in American films; the Sicily of "Mafioso" is not entirely dissimilar to the Georgia Back Country of "Deliverance." Nobody is forced to squeal like a piggy, though Nino might be feeling pretty jealous of Ned Beatty by the end of the film. As an American, I find it hard to tell whether the film crosses the line from vicious satire to outright offensiveness. Suffice it to say Lattuada's portrait of Sicily, while not entirely unsentimental, is not a generous one.
A more universal theme is the conflict between urban and rural cultures which run on entirely different time scales. In Milan, Nino's factory runs on a rigid schedule; punch in, punch out. And he has to rush the family to catch the boat on time. Once in Sicily, though, clocks and watches disappear in favor of a day that ambles along in no particular hurry to get anywhere, content to just stop and rest in the sun for a spell. Progress is the goal in Milan, pure anathema in Sicily where traditional values (such as they are) preserve a sense of time and space that never changes.
While some of the regional humor is lost in translation, Sordi's performance crosses all cultures. "Mafioso" isn't riotously funny, but has its fair share of laughs. It also functions as a much-needed palliative to the romanticized image of Sicilian mob culture portrayed in "The Godfather." Here, Lattuada and his screenwriters out "omertà" as pure bullshit, not so much a code of honor as an excuse for boys to play with their toys.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This transfer is very strong even by Criterion standards. I can't find a single thing to complain about. What can I say? Criterion just doesn't leave me anything to write about these days. Darn near perfect.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.
The single-disc release includes several short interviews.
The best of the group is "Ritratti d'autore" (17 min), a 1996 interview with director Alberto Lattuada by filmmaker Daniele Luchetti. Luchetti brings a sharp and engaged perspective to this featurette, turning a potentially dry interview featurette into a substantive discussion between two filmmakers.
The disc also includes a short interview with Lattuada's wife, actress Carla Del Poggio (8 min) and an interview with the director's son, Alessandro Lattuado (7 min). The Del Poggio interview was recorded on the occasion of the film's screening at the 2006 New York Film Festival.
A gallery of promotional caricatures by artist Keiko Kimura is also included.
Finally, the disc has both an original trailer and a trailer for the film's 2007 U.S. re-release.
The 24-page insert booklet features an essay by Phillip Lopate, a translated essay by Italian critic Roberto Chiesi and an excerpted interview with Lattuada taken from Claudio Camerini's 1982 biography "Alberto Lattuada."
A winning performance by Alberto Sordi makes "Mafioso" an enjoyable comedy even for a viewer who, like me, is a bit uncomfortable with some of the over-the-top Sicilian stereotyping. Lattuada, who retired in 1989, passed away in 2005. Criterion has more than done justice to his memory with this fine release.