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In 2014, Sicilian satirist Franco Maresco made Belluscone: A Sicilian Story, which premiered in Venice and is perhaps best described as a mockumentary. It chronicled the director’s attempts to prove former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s alleged ties to the mafia, something that he hilariously keeps failing at because no one in Sicily wants to go on record and possibly offend the Mob. That film worked because even though it could never prove its specific thesis, it made it very clear that Sicily’s culture of silence and self-censorship when it came to the mafia not only existed but was extremely effective.
One of the main characters in that film, a balding and frequently bumbling talent agent with shady ties called Ciccio Mira, is also one of the leads in Maresco’s new film, Mafia Is Not What It Used to Be (La Mafia non e piu quella di una volta). Indeed, this Special Jury Prize winner at the Venice International Film Festival feels like a sequel of sorts to Belluscone, although like a lot of sequels, it’s repetitive and hollow as it tries to recapture what worked in the original while being forced to tell a new story so it doesn’t completely play like reheated leftovers.
But Maresco doesn’t really have a story angle beyond the 25th anniversary of the brutal killing of two anti-mafia judges, which feels much too superficial and thin for a feature-length film. Most of the (attempts at) humor will also be lost in translation, so it could be said that as a filmmaker, Maresco, too, is not what he used to be.
In 2017, it was 25 years since the brutal assassinations of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-mafia magistrates silenced by the people they were looking to prosecute. During the summer of 2017, Maresco goes out onto the streets of Palermo to do some vox pop-type interviews about the magistrates, now considered national heroes and martyrs. But not a single interviewee is interested in praising them, some people are negative and others even start harassing Maresco and his cameraman. All this is played completely straight, as if we were watching a documentary, but for anyone familiar with Maresco’s work, the fact at least some of this has been scripted shouldn’t come as a surprise. (Tellingly, in the pic’s press notes, it is listed in his filmography under his “films” and not “documentaries.”)
One of the people disappointed by this lack of enthusiasm for the legacy of Falcone and Borsellino is the outspoken photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, who chronicled the mafia for decades, as can be seen in Kim Longinotto’s 2019 Sundance documentary Shooting the Mafia. Maresco’s film actually opens on the 83-year-old Battaglia. Even though she hasn’t been formally introduced yet, she’s already furious at the director because he hasn’t lit her properly — a cardinal sin for a photographer, of course. She also reminds the filmmaker that the only reason she’s participating in his project is because she wants to play an “old whore” in his next movie. This is the kind of vulgar banter between two Palermo-born personalities that works better in the original than it does in translation.
Most of the feature concentrates on Ciccio Mira’s attempt to organize a street party, his specialty as a talent agent, to commemorate the assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino. (For reasons unknown, Mira always appears in black-and-white, even though he might be in a shot with others, who are in color.) Maresco, off-camera either conducting interviews or delivering a running commentary in voiceover, tries to figure out why Mira, who has been arrested for his ties to the mafia, would put on a show for people who tried to prosecute the organized crime syndicate. But here, as elsewhere, Maresco’s attempts to wring both humor and insight from the situation feel tired and — for those who have seen his previous work — overly familiar. The only genuinely amusing bit is Mira’s advice that suggests that, though the mafia isn’t all bad, it is too late to get involved with them at this point in time: “The mafia is not what it used to be,” he says, giving the film its title.
The street party will feature local singers of popular Neapolitan songs from Mira’s Rolodex, including one former child star, Cristian Miscel, who says he was revived from a coma by Falcone and Borsellino, who told him to “get up and sing.” If this isn’t enough of a cock-and-bull story, it turns out that Miscel, or at least the post-coma Miscel, has less than zero talent as a singer. The problem is that Maresco thinks that is inherently funny, when really it’s a setup that still needs a punchline. This is a problem that occurs throughout Mafia Is Not What It Used to Be. Perhaps the missing article at the start of the title is a coded message about how half-hearted and incomplete this entire enterprise will feel?
The main problem, however, isn’t that large stretches of it are not funny or only reach for the cheapest laugh. The issue is a more structural one. Maresco has cast Mira and Battaglia as his two leads. But he doesn’t seem to know what to do with them and the two obvious opposites they represent, with Battaglia, as a photojournalist, famous for making the darkest side of the mafia visible to much wider audiences and Mira more clearly aligned — as he was in Belluscone — with the idea of the island’s code of silence. This fascinating opposition is never fully exploited. Battaglia especially feels like a wasted asset and disappears several times, perhaps because she’s too intelligent to be constantly made fun of, unlike Mira’s endless pool of (supposed) talent and collaborators.
Given the ramshackle, improvised-feeling nature of what passes for a narrative here, it is a bit of a shock to see in the credits that Maresco worked on the script with Claudia Uzzo, Francesco Guttuso, Giuliano La Franca and Uliano Greca, and that a further two editors, Edoardo Morabito and Francesco Guttuso, were needed to box this into its current, still rather shapeless form. And as if the movie didn’t feel like enough of an unfocused mixed bag, Maresco splices in a seemingly unrelated, animated segment toward the end. The film-within-a-film, beautifully if starkly executed, looks at the Sicilian Mattarella dynasty. Their scion Sergio Mattarella is the current president of Italy and his brother, Piersanti, was killed by the mafia in 1980, when he was the president of the Sicilian region. But what exactly Maresco is trying to say or insinuate about the clan and its relationship to Sicily, politics and the mafia remains vague. So why include it at all?
Production companies: Dream Film, Tramp Lmd, Moretti & Petrassi Holding, Amateru, Il Saggiatore, Daring House, Okta Film Avventurosa
Cast: Letizia Battaglia, Ciccio Mira, Matteo Mannino, Cristian Miscel, Franco Zecchin
Director: Franco Maresco
Screenwriters: Franco Maresco, Claudia Uzzo, Francesco Guttuso, Giuliano La Franca, Uliano Greca
Producer: Ila Palma
Cinematography: Tommaso Lusena De Sarmiento
Production design: Nicola Sferruzza
Costume design: Nicola Sferruzza
Editing: Edoardo Morabito, Francesco Guttuso
Music: Salvatore Bonafede
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Fandango Sales
In Italian, Sicilian, Neapolitan
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