Alberto Lattuada's tricky-to-parse Mafioso dates from 1962, but with its abrupt tonal shifts and disturbing existential premise, this nearly forgotten dark comedy could be the most modern (or at least modernist) movie in town.
Released by Rialto on the heels of its triumphantly rediscovered Army of Shadows, Lattuada's tale of a "modern Sicilian" who returns to his roots is a genre film and character drama that undermines notions of genre and character alike. Mafioso is bracketed by shots of Alberto Sordi's proud and foolish efficiency expert striding through a huge Milan Fiat factory. In between, Sordi—a gifted farceur with matinee-idol looks—executes a prolonged psychological pratfall. Once Lattuada pulls the rug from beneath his character, Mafioso careens from comedy of manners (and neo-realist travelogue) to something far more hilariously shocking.
The sort of man who admonishes a worker for laboring too fast and shaves while polishing his shoes and talking nonstop, Sordi's character is a wildly successful Southern transplant—complete with a chic Northern wife (Brazilian actress Norma Bengell) and two blond children. His world is momentarily complicated when he learns that his boss is a fellow Sicilian (by way of New Jersey), but modern times really turn feudal once he returns to his home village for a vacation. Wife and kids are swept up in a series of screaming reunions and huge meals. The table goes silent when Bengell lights a post-lunch cigarette, but the real culture shock is Sordi's. Always voluble, he becomes borderline hysterical, his "Northern" persona disintegrating as he abruptly bursts into song upon his return.
Lattuada satirizes Sicily as he acknowledges Northern prejudices. Fresh off the boat, Sordi and family stumble across a party being thrown for a corpse. (Later it's explained that he "dug his own grave.") Death is everywhere under the hot Sicilian sun, and there's a backbeat of primitive violence. In one slapstick interlude, two octogenarians break into a knife fight. The local church has a rude, barbaric splendor and Sordi's childhood house is a mysterious nest of obscure passages and cluttered rooms. The town itself is in thrall to an elderly don (Lattuada's own father-in-law, Ugo Attanasio) and so, almost immediately, is Sordi. Overwhelmed by his past, fallen into a sort of chasm, he undergoes a regression that's both individual and cultural.
Mafioso exerts its own sort of time twist, reorienting one's sense of film history. This was seemingly the first Italian movie to portray the modern mafia (Eye of the Needle, also a comedy, was released around the same time) and it's a blueprint for The Godfather in sardonic, compressed, anecdotal form. (Also reversed: This is The Godfather looking out from Sicily rather than back at it.) Given the movie's virtual dictionary of mafia euphemisms, it's hard to believe that Mario Puzo hadn't seen Mafioso while writing his novel; it would be fascinating to know if Martin Scorsese (just 21 and still living at home?) caught the movie when it played 42nd Street during the summer of 1964. Like Mean Streets, Mafioso has characters who talk without ever saying anything and communicate all manner of things by not ever mentioning them.
Mafioso is still playing as light comedy when Sordi, out with his family in a boat, is summoned to the don by an unseen messenger. The cry reverberates from the rocks and thereafter a chasm opens in the chasm. Efficiency seems like child's play compared to the precisely planned plot in which Sordi becomes a cog. (Among other things, Mafioso suggests that the mafia runs companies if not countries; it's as much an essay on the power of fascism as on that of the Cosa Nostra.)
The final reel conveys a potent sense of unreality—appropriate to the collapse of civilized restraint. Has it all been a nightmare? Mafioso might be an episode of The Twilight Zone or a variation on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play The Visit—a small-town conspiracy with the returning native as victim. The movie's most profoundly modern trope is its ending. Sordi's character is back home at last, with the knowledge that he'll never be at home anywhere again.