The Godfather is Vito Corleone, with a cat on his lap and a favor in his pocket. He's Tony Soprano, a mobster of human dimension, with problems and a psychiatrist. But first, he was Don Vincenzo, the malevolent paterfamilias of Mafioso, a 1962 Italian drama, directed by Alberto Lattuada, about one man's family ties to The Family.
The man is Antonio (Alberto Sordi), a highly regarded supervisor at a car factory in Milan, with a wife and two young daughters. He's worked hard for what he has -- so hard, in fact, that his new family has never met his old one on the island of Sicily where he grew up. So Antonio collects some extra vacation time to take his family on a trip home.
For Marta, his wife, the oddness begins just off the boat: They pass a funeral, with the murdered man's body at the center of the festivities. It's the custom, Antonio says glibly. At dinner with her big family of in-laws -- including Antonio's sister, whose mustache rivals his -- Marta lights up a cigarette and gets odd looks. (Women in this Old World don't smoke in public.) Worse yet, she explains that she always lights up after the meal, but all she's been served so far is the meal-sized appetizer.
And then, there's Antonio's visit to the Don. It's a courtesy call, one that everyone makes, or else. It's also nostalgic, for as a boy, Antonio worked for the mob, which helped launch his career. So now, he owes Don Vincenzo a favor. Payback comes in the form of a climax borrowed more than once, four decades later, by The Sopranos.
Nowadays this all sounds familiar: a slice of domesticity before the family man turns killer. But Mafioso predates our modern mythologies, and it's a measured piece of work: The contradictions emerge gradually, through Marta's eyes, and she reacts to them like the stranger in a horror movie where nobody else in town seems to recognize the aberrations going on around them.
For every bit of spirit and vivacity we see among the people of Sicily, there's equal parts rigidity and death. Marta gives her father-in-law a pair of gloves, not knowing he has only one hand. The other one disappeared when it stopped a bullet. It's a typical story in this quaint old place. And yet, on the beach, the men discuss alienation, happiness and communication as if they all just came from Dr. Melfi's office.
This gives Mafioso both a mythic and a realistic sensation, as does its visual style: mostly neorealist, the Italian tradition of the time, but also slightly expressionistic, with extreme close-ups and nuanced lighting. The result is a proto-drama that both establishes a mythology and shatters it, reminding us once again that anyone who thinks a good Mafia movie romanticizes these people isn't paying attention. In Italian, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., June 15. Regent Square