Thursday, September 17, 2015

THE MAFIA KILLS ONLY IN SUMMER (La mafia uccide solo d'estate, 2013)

It's good to see that the Italians can still come up with wacky verbose titles to their movies. This time we have to assume that the title sounds funny on purpose, since Pierfrancesco Diliberto's film is a comedy. As "Pif," Diliberto is a popular TV personality in Italy, apparently a satirical news reporter of the sort we see on cable TV in the U.S. His first movie as writer, director and star is a satire of Italian crime and politics from the 1970s into the 1990s, as well as a kind of romantic-comedy bildungsroman that equates coming of age with coming to terms with truth. Pif takes a potentially treacherous path juxtaposing comedy and real-life tragedy, as if Forrest Gump had been witness to the political assassinations of the American Sixties, and he manages to pull it off with style.

La mafia uccide tells the story of Arturo (played by several actors, finally by Pif himself), whose life has been shaped since conception by proximity to crime. Pif means this literally. As Arturo's parents consummate their marriage, a St. Valentines-style massacre -- with hitmen disguised as cops -- is being staged nearby. As a CGI cartoon demonstrates, nearly all the father's sperm are frightened away from the mother's egg by the gunfire, but one little sperm, the slowest of all, carries on to fertilize the egg that will become Arturo. Throughout, Arturo will be something of a slow learner, but when he finally speaks his first word, it's the most dangerous one possible in Palermo.

Arturo grows up in a land where everyone evades the truth. Mafia killings happen all the time, it seems, but are always blamed on disputes over women. In this environment of awkward evasiveness, Arturo becomes an awkward child with a strange fixation on Giulio Andreotti, the longtime leader of the Christian Democratic Party. Between this film and Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, an outsider can conclude that Andreotti was Italy's Nixon, a figure defined as much by his physical and emotional awkwardness as by his ethical shadiness. It's hard to tell whether Pif is riffing on the real Andreotti or on Tony Servillo's Andreotti in Il Divo by having Arturo dress up as Andreotti and mimic his peculiar mincing, hands-folded shuffle for a costume party. The boy looks a little like a vampire with Andreotti's pointed ears and wins the costume contest, albeit by mistake; the judges thought he was the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Arturo seems to empathize with Andreotti's awkwardness, starting with a TV appearance in which the premier describes making a marriage proposal in a cemetery. The rest of the film will trace Arturo's very gradual disillusionment with a man who did much, it seems, to keep Italy in denial about the Mafia. Andreotti was a cold character, apparently. When other politicians flocked to the funeral of a Mafia victim, he told reporters, "I prefer to go to baptisms."


Diliberto establishes a pattern and sticks to it, keeping Arturo (and his lifelong beloved, Flora) at the edge of violent history. Arturo aspires to be a journalist and wins a reporter-for-a-day contest for one of the city newspapers; the award ceremony is interrupted by news of the latest killing. In his new role, the boy will sneak into a government compound to interview an important police official, challenging him with Andreotti's assertion that the real crime problem is anywhere but Sicily. Arturo will be one of the last people to see him alive. Later, Flora (Ginevra Antona as a girl) has to leave the country with her father on short notice, while Arturo scrawls a love note on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. We see her finish packing her clothes and dragging her suitcase out of her old room; seconds later her window shatters from a car bomb. Later still, the adult Arturo, making ends meet as pianist to a Franco-Italian talk show host, is passed by motorcyclists while riding in a car with his employer, whom the bikers recognize as a celebrity. The camera follows the motorcycle as it turns onto another street so the bikers can kill a politician. Again, it's a delicate balancing act in terms of tone, but the comedy is actually funny and the history is appropriately horrific.


As the mafia wars escalate with the rise of a particularly nasty boss, Toto Rinna, Arturo can no longer believe Andreotti's evasions and denials. In turn, he has to disillusion Flora (Cristiana Capotondi as an adult), who has become a naive Christian Democrat operative handling a particularly unpromising candidate. Arturo gets involved in the campaign but proves incompetent as a partisan stooge. He nearly blows his latest chance to score with Flora by criticizing the anti-crime speech she's written for the candidate. He's never said anything like this before, he says bluntly, so why should he start now. Yet for all the candidate's weakness he's still unacceptable to the mafia; he's the man the motorcyclists kill. There are still more killings to go before mass revulsion spills becomes mass action that finally unites hero and heroine for good. Diliberto closes the show on a note of earned poignance. Arturo is going to raise his own son differently from how he was raised. We see him taking the boy on a tour of all the memorials to the people murdered -- characters he's met and others in the background -- by the mafia, and we end with a collage of news clippings honoring Italy's anti-crime martyrs. Pif's mix of comedy and grim history might seem insensitive to overly sensitive audiences in the U.S., but his success on his first try as a cinematic satirist has me looking forward to whatever he may do next.

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