Friday, July 15, 2011

MAFIA (Il giorno della civetta, 1968)

Fans of WildEast's spaghetti western and Eurocrime DVDs may be disappointed by Damiano Damiani's adaptation of Leonardo Sciascia's literary mystery novel The Day of the Owl, just as American moviegoers may have been disappointed when it hit U.S. screens under the utterly generic title Mafia in 1970. For Americans, that name carries connotations of urban crime -- indeed, of American crime -- that have nothing to do with Sciascia's story of small-town Sicily. "Eurocrime" fans, meanwhile, are unlikely to be satisfied with a story that has very little action of violence beyond its opening killing. As well, fans of Claudia Cardinale -- the star of this WildEast double-feature disc -- may be disappointed with the relatively little she has to do in a film that gives her top billing, made at the peak period of her stardom, at the same time she got top billing over Fonda, Bronson and Robards in Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West. But having laid down all these caveats, I found Damiani's film modestly effective as an atmospheric mystery and a critique of systematic corruption in Italy.

The mystery is the shooting of an honest contractor in the road-construction business in a sun-baked Sicilian town. Most people's first instinct is to ignore the crime; a busload of passengers would have looked right past the corpse had a carabinieri officer not also been on board. A young detective from "the north," Bellodi (Franco Nero) is the new officer in charge in town, a position that we soon realize is a revolving door to futility. The local mafioso, Don Mariano (an unwell-looking Lee J. Cobb) has seen the authorities come and go while he remains in power. I mean that literally: Mariano's house in the center of town and carabinieri headquarters look out at each other across a little public square. Bellodi presumes Mariano to be behind the killing of a businessman who wouldn't play ball with the mafia, but he has no evidence yet. However, the killing took place in plain view of the Nicolosi house, and as it happens the man of the house has disappeared, leaving his wife Rosa (Cardinale) alone. Has he left because he was the killer, or was he removed because he saw something he shouldn't have?

It's good to be the Don; Lee J. Cobb presides over his Mafia fiefdom

Bellodi's methods are manipulative if not Macchiavellian. With further evidence unlikely to turn up, he has to resort to trickery and outright lying to get people to open up or betray themselves. He tells Rosa that her husband has been found dead -- a lie -- just to see how she'll react, who she'll instinctively blame. Later, he'll confront crooks with fake confessions, hoping that they'll tell the truth if they think their pals are tossing them under the bus. His strategy is to compel someone into thinking their only option is to finger the real killer of the contractor or reveal where Nicolosi can be found. But his adversaries are just as good at lying as he is, if not better. They want Bellodi to believe that Nicolosi killed the contractor because the victim was having an affair with Rosa. When Bellodi deduces a different story and has Mariano and his cohorts arrested, the remaining mafiosi form a united front with an indifferent criminal justice system (Mariano is on good terms with the local ruling party) to overwhelm Bellodi's case with their own perjuries. Before long there's a new sheriff in town, so to speak, but a victorious Mariano finds himself missing Bellodi, whom he could at least respect as a worthy foe. The new man, like so many others, strikes the Don as just another "quack-quack-quack" -- like his own minions who quack in amused chorus when the worst is over. Maybe the story should have been called Day of the Duck.

Franco Nero goes incognito (right) for his meetings with the informer Parrinieddu (Serge Reggiani, left)

Given the cast and the literary pedigree, Mafia is no B-movie or genre picture and doesn't strive for sensationalism. We have the one shooting, and one corpse found later, and an attempted rape of Cardinale's character that doesn't go very far. Damiani's film stands or falls on conventional dramatic terms. On the director's part, the real strength of the picture is its sense of place. The square with the police station and the Don's house at opposite ends and characters constantly going in and out of jail or paying court to Mariano, is an ideal and picturesque dramatic space. On the outskirts of town, Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography gives you a strong sense of the wide-open, sun-blasted and grungy environment of road construction, the mundane business of a small-town mafia.

The cast is a mixed bag. Cardinale maintains a sullen glare for most of the picture, though she wears it well, but her character's ultimate helplessness makes little lasting impression. Cobb operates well short of full-blast, but with that voluble character actor that can sometimes be a good thing. It's wise to underplay, too, when character actors like Serge Reggiani (as an informer), Nehemiah Persoff (as a sleazy contractor) and Gaetano Cimarosa (as a really voluble gangster) are acting up a thespian storm around you. The real weak link in the cast is Franco Nero, who strikes me as too young for his role and too lacking in authority or cunning. He spends most of the show in his carabinieri uniform looking smug. That may be how his character was written in the original novel, but in the movie it provokes a feeling of pointlessness. For its original Italian audience, the most disappointing thing about Il giorno della civetta may have been the co-starring of Nero and Cardinale with a complete lack of romance between the two superstars.

Mafia is not a great mafia movie, but it's an interesting pop-culture artifact of 1960s Italy. In a way, it may have been a necessary prelude to the tough-cop movies of 1970s Italy, since it can't help leaving audiences frustrated at the triumph of injustice and probably wishing that someone would just lash out at organized crime. Damiani's film portrays something closer to the glum reality against which cinema would react with a vengeance.


Nigel Maskell said...

One of my favourite Damiani- I love how,alongside Most Beautiful Wife, the film concentrates on the impact of the mob on ordinary lives and in both instances have strong female characters willing to stand up to the heirarchy.

Samuel Wilson said...

Nigel, I think this one might be appreciated more if it were packaged more appropriately and not as the sort of shoot-'em-up that it clearly isn't. You point straight at some of its best qualities.