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.
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.