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For narrative crispness, however, Nair’s film can’t rival Mafioso, a recently unearthed 1962 film by Alberto Lattuada that combines cinematic naturalism with the snap of an impeccably constructed short story. The movie opens in a bustling, pristine Milan auto plant, and the location doesn’t merely foretell that Antonio Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi) is about to take his family on a trip; the factory also exemplifies the order, logic, and industriousness of northern Italy. Antonio has the ultimate “northern” job as an efficiency expert, but his workplace identity begins to slip before he leaves the plant. His boss has heard that Antonio is heading home to Sicily for a vacation and gives him a package for Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), the boss of Calamo, Antonio’s hometown. Delivering the parcel, of course, will entangle its courier in the life he left behind.
Antonio’s love for his native Sicily is abundantly clear. Yet he’s apprehensive as well: This is the first time he’s taken his blond and utterly modern wife, Marta (Norma Bengell), and their two grade-school-aged daughters to visit his family there. Antonio and his brood can see the island from the mainland when they board the ferry, but it’s a lot farther away than they realize. Marta is appalled by the food, the grooming, and the customs—especially the ones that glorify violence and death and exalt fealty to Don Vincenzo. “He dug his own grave” means that a guy violated the code of silence, while a picciotto (literally, a little man) is a Mafia enforcer. Don Vincenzo can always use more of them.
The visitors gradually become more comfortable. Marta bonds with her hairy sister-in-law over a magic potion from Milan known as a depilatory, and she’s no longer shocked at the notion that Antonio might buy some land in Calamo for a vacation home. Meanwhile, her clueless husband doesn’t understand why one of Don Vincenzo’s lieutenants takes him to a sideshow to evaluate his skill with a pistol. Soon enough, Antonio learns that the don has a mission for him that far surpasses his imagination. It’s also well beyond the scope of the first three-quarters of the film, yet director Alberto Lattuada handles the transition with ease. Even viewers who have intuited some of what is to come will probably be amazed.
Like so many Italian films of the era, Mafioso is indebted to neorealism. The story (scripted by Rafael Azcona, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci, and Furio Scarpelli) wouldn’t work without the contrast between the real Milan, sleek and affluent, and the actual Sicily, pungent and nearly medieval-looking. Just as essential, however, is the performance of Sordi, who looks like a romantic leading man but has the demeanor of a silent-film clown. As suave as he is absurd, Sordi’s Antonio labors amusingly to retain his dignity. In the movie’s final act, when the very sanity of his character is at risk, the actor is no less convincing. His picciotto is more Buster Keaton than Robert De Niro, which suits the movie’s blend of the droll and the diabolical.
The latest rediscovery from Rialto Pictures, a New York firm with impeccable taste in long-forgotten post-war French and Italian films, Mafioso is a comedy that executes an unexpected jackknife into existential drama. Lattuada is best known today as the co-director of Federico Fellini’s debut feature, Variety Lights, and he has a reputation as a workmanlike filmmaker who rightfully has been overshadowed by the star directors of ’50s and ’60s Italy. This movie suggests otherwise. Lattuada may not be the equal of such Rialto mainstays as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Luc Godard, but it seems likely that the creator of a film as sharp, funny, and startling as Mafioso made a few other movies worth reviving.