Directed by: Alberto Lattuada
Written by: Rafael Azcona, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli
Mafioso opens with a montage of heavy machinery in motion, and it’s so loud it approaches absurdity. But, of course, it has a point; Lattuada wants to make it unequivocally clear that Milan is exceedingly modern. This way, when the film moves to Sicily, you’ll really perceive the stark distinction between urban and rural Italy, and you’ll, at least at first, be on Antonio’s (Alberto Sordi) side with nostalgic adoration for the old way of living.
Antonio is a chipper and strikingly obsequious (he takes a cigarette when offered despite the fact he doesn't smoke) factory foreman about to embark on a two week vacation back to his boyhood Sicilian home, toting his blond trophy wife, Marta, and two young daughters along for their first visit. In Milan, everything is so modern that even the doors are mechanical—they open at the push of a button, with no knobs or handles. Sicily, however, is still thoroughly Old World, and Lattuada has a brilliant comedic eye for the contrasts: Antonio’s wife sticks out like an IBM among the mustachioed women and toothless octogenarians; residents travel by horse-drawn cart, while stray dogs litter the streets and wild hens room freely through the house. It doesn't take long for the exasperated Marta to finally break down in tears.
Antonio, on the other hand, has a romantic fondness for the ostensible simplicity of that kind of living, and the first half of the picture is a very amusing culture clash comedy between North and South. (Even if American audiences can’t appreciate the regional specifics, they should be able to appreciate the spirit, having their own North and South divide.) But something not so funny lurks just beneath the film’s surface; after all, one of the first things the family encounters upon their arrival in Sicily is a funeral, and when Don Vincenzo—the local Mafia boss—asks Antonio for a favor in the middle of the story, the film radically changes from light comedy to dark drama. It’s deftly and successfully executed thanks to Lattuada’s smart direction and Sordi’s masterful performance. Both the comedy and the drama are heavily exaggerated—I think the reviews claiming the film to be somewhat neo-realistic are misguided—but the actors and location shooting give it a balancing sense of believability and legitimacy.
Lattuada is making a pointed rebuttal to those reactionaries who’d claim that country life is a purer and superior way of living to city life, that the past was better than the present is. Antonio is good family man in the city, but the country transforms him into a violent criminal. He’s naïve to have imbued the rural areas with an unfounded innocence when in truth life was far dirtier and more violent in the old days than it is today. And so, the film’s final image is a wide overhead shot of Antonio passing back into the safety of rows and rows of factory machinery. Long live modernity.