Venice Film Review: ‘The Mafia Is Not What It Used to Be’

September 9, 2019 12:06AM PT

An abrasive and pandering mockumentary whose endlessly repetitive setups and headache-inducing voiceover is strictly for local audiences.

The films of director Franco Maresco (“Belluscone: A Sicilian Story”) are an acquired taste, rarely developed by non-Italian palates, and “The Mafia Is Not What It Used to Be” is a prime example. Playing in the nether regions separating documentary and fiction, Maresco is a humorist who expresses his frustration at Italian politics with absurdism — a legitimate response given how surreal some of the situations can be. His style, however, is abrasive and pandering, while his voice acts as a near constant accompaniment as he “interviews” characters whose benighted pro-Berlusconi attitudes (as in his last film) or complacency about the Mafia, as here, are played as farce. Though the word “mockumentary” is oddly rarely applied to Maresco’s exasperating movies, there’s every sign his subjects are scripted; if they weren’t, his manner of ridiculing these people would be offensive. “Mafia” is strictly for locals.

Here’s the setup: In 2017, on the 25th anniversary of the assassinations of anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, Maresco takes his camera to the streets of Palermo to gauge popular opinion on the two men widely revered as martyrs (their murders are referenced in scores of Italian films and documentaries, including most recently Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor”). His muse is Letizia Battaglia, the cheeky 83-year-old photographer whose images recording the fight against the Mafia have earned her worldwide recognition. The rabble he speaks to are all aggressive when the subject is brought up, or they merely shrug their shoulders, dismissing the men’s sacrifice and thereby enabling the Cosa Nostra.

While Battaglia comes away depressed by the banality of the commemorations, Maresco goes to speak with Francesco “Ciccio” Mira, the erstwhile Z-grade showman who’s also an important part of “Belluscone.” Mira puts together shows for local street fairs and low-budget TV featuring a motley assortment of talentless entertainers like Cristian Miscel, a wannabe singer incapable of enunciating or carrying a tune. Taking advantage of the anniversary, Mira and his producer Matteo Mannino organize an event featuring his usual crew, but when Maresco presses them to say, “Down with the Mafia!” during the show, Mira evades answering and Mannino keeps repeating “No comment.”

It’s highly unlikely anyone outside Italy will find much amusement in the repetitive situations or Maresco’s headache-inducing voiceover (let’s not even get into Miscel’s caterwauling). No one can accuse the director of subtlety, though he’d likely counter that the subject doesn’t warrant pussyfooting about. While that may be true, there have been intelligent satires, like those of Sabina Guzzanti, that use surreal humor to attack Mafia apologists and Cosa Nostra collaborators in the highest ranks of government. At the movie’s end, Maresco’s anger at public complacency reaches all the way to the top when he slyly accuses President Sergio Mattarella (whose brother was killed by the Mafia) of suspiciously remaining quiet after Italian courts revealed links between politicians and the Cosa Nostra. If he wants to make an accusation, he should find a better vehicle to do so.

Whenever Mira appears, the screen shifts from color to black and white in a reference to a 1990s TV show Maresco made with Daniele Ciprì, but that’s the sort of information to tickle hardcore fans rather than a broader public. Perhaps they’re the same audience who’ll be amused by the way the film makes fun of an endless number of loutish “bystanders” and minor Palermo cult celebrities; it is remarkable that Maresco manages to find only the most cretinous peasant faces as subjects for his mocking lens.

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