It would make sense that the writer behind Gianni Amelio's Lamerica would have a grip on some of the deepest and most mythical aspects of the Italian experience. And here in 'The Sweet and the Bitter'/'Il dolce e l'amaro' Andrea Porporati grabs something killer: the composite life of a humble soldier of the Mafia who eventually became one of the many "pentiti," the turncoats who turned state's evidence and were put into protection after a life of being told what to do and how to think, pretending to be big and really being nothing. That's how Saro (Luigi LoCascio) describes himself toward the end of this eventful 98-minute film. We're tired of hearing about the Mafia, some American viewers may say. Yes, and nobody is more tired of hearing about the Mafia than the Italians. Unfortunately, despite thousands of "pentiti" and the martyrdom of brave judges who dared put mafiosi away, the Cosa Nostra is still very much around. This is not as good a story as 'Lamerica,' and Porporati is not as good a director as Gianni Ameli, but this is a cracking good story and this is not just another Mafia story, even if in melding his composite of three "pentiti" tales he's occasionally forged outcomes and relationships that are a little bit too neat. In movies, neatness works. Even events that at least in retrospect may seem breathtakingly obvious, in the rich mise-en-scène of a well-made Italian film they can make you gasp with a mixture of horror and pleasure.
In an opening scene, a man and a boy take a leak out in a vast landscape. It's Sicily. The man tells the boy to look up at the beautiful moon. But I see the sun, the boy says. Look again, says the man. Oh, yes, the boy says. I see the moon. Why do you see the moon now? the man asks. Before, says the boy, I was looking through my own eyes, but now I am looking through your eyes. That's the way I want you to be, says the man. Thus the Mafia tutors its future servants. A wonderful scene, as funny as it is chilling.
Poporati has style. The art direction and cinematography are excellent here. Most importantly, one scene after another grabs you. Yes, it's violent. But this is an organization that lives by violence. Early in life, Saro is sent into a Sicilian prison to negotiate with his father, a Mafia lieutenant who's leading a revolt. His father is a good lieutenant and he will not negotiate. That's the last Saro sees of his father: the revolting prisoners are all shot. Saro is raised by his godfather, Don Gaetano, whose son Mimmo (Gaetano Bruno) is an obvious coward who clutches up at a key moment.
Saro loves Ada (Donatella Finocchiaro), the local (figurative) princess, and Ada loves Saro, but she will not marry him because he's a criminal. She prefers Stefano (Fabrizio Gifuni), whom Saro beats up, but who stoically resists, earning Saro's respect. The flame continues to burn for a long time and is renewed years later after Ada has long moved to the north of Italy. Stevano renounces everything and studies the law. The next time Saro sees him he's become a magistrate. Mimmo and Saro are initiated into the "Men of Honor" of the Mafia for a double hit in which Mimmo has clutched but Saro has covered for him. The debts and resentments are already deep.
Saro marries the girl he's told to marry and has two kids and lives in a nice apartment full of art with a large balcony. He's the envy of many. But life is full of the desperate betrayals and impossible demands of the criminal organization. Saro is ordered to kill none other than Stefano (whom he respects and who has already done him favors). But before that he is betrayed by his boss and the devious Mimmo so he's ordered to kill his own godfather, and because he cannot follow through on that he is forced to flee to the north of Italy, leaving behind his wife and kids--but finding Ada. I won't tell you any more, only that the final scene of hilarity during a bank robbery (rhyming with an earlier uproarious scene) made me weep with pleasure. Porporati wields one last scenic coup.
Subtitles are handy in this one, since most of the dialog is in Sicilian dialect; most of the main actors, except for Fabrizio Gifuni, are native Sicilians. The casting of Luigi Lo Cascio, which is perfect, makes this film. Americans may have seen him in Bellocchio's 'Good Morning, Night.' He also has a key role as one of the brothers of Marco Tullio Giordana's popular minor epic 'The Best of Youth.' Lo Cascio is one of the important Italian screen actors of today. Think Lino Ventura with sex appeal. Lo Casio has a lithe coolness. He seems stubborn and angry. When he beats up a future magistrate, it's believable. He's small, yet he's lithe and snakelike. He's a born petty hoodlum, both menacing and cowed. And very, very Sicilian. When he goes up to a woman at a posh party you feel embarrassed for him. He looks unprepossessing in that setting. His prison mentor may have taught him to appreciate caviar, but he has no class, even though he's a prince in a dark alley. There is something haunting and mythical about Lo Cascio. This film is about him and it builds his myth.
There has been some Italian hand-wringing about this "TV film" being at Venice, but sometimes a corking good potboiler is a lot better than a limp art film, and this is the standout so far of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center in New York, 2008.
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