'The Mayor of Rione Sanita' ('Il sindaco di Rione Sanita'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Venice Film Festival
Staggering performances illuminate the play's moral ambiguity.

Mario Martone’s screen adaptation of Eduardo De Filippo’s controversial 1960 play features a local boss who fights for justice.

Even when the great Neapolitan actor and playwright Eduardo De Filippo wrote and performed The Mayor of Rione Sanita (Il sindaco di Rione Sanita) onstage in 1960, there was a ring of controversy to the story of a local Camorra boss who was looked up to like a king by the population and who dispensed his own version of justice. A positive Godfather? But that was almost 60 years ago, and since then organized crime in the Naples area has grown much closer to the ferocious young beasts of Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah and Dogman than to De Filippo’s wise old Don.

Reflecting the times we live in, director Mario Martone (Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician, Theater of War) turns Don Antonio Barracano from an Old World gentleman of 75 to a tattooed toughie in his late 30s, played with tense ferocity by an exceptional Francesco Di Leva.

Whereas De Filippo insisted the character was not a Camorrista but a “Mammasantissima” living outside legality but protecting his neighborhood from injustice, today it’s hard to make that distinction. Don Antonio is a mass of contradictions, first threatening those who come to him, then dispensing advice and money, beating, taking. Those who come for his help — two wild young hoods, a couple in love, a usurer and his victim — are as morally ambiguous as he is.

Based on Martone’s own recent staging of the play, Mayor of Rione Sanita is a challenging work whose verbal violence is engrossing but also repellent. It is certainly one of the director’s more successful films, but it suffers from the same intellectual barriers that have made his work so difficult to access for general audiences. As fascinating as the actors’ performances are to watch, their meaning is not so easy to interpret, and many willing viewers will leave the film more bemused than enlightened. The film bowed in competition at Venice.

Martone skillfully breaks out the play into a number of vivid locations, eliminating any sense of claustrophobia. But it is obvious from the existential dialogue and long monologues that it all comes from the stage. In a dazzling opening sequence played to a rap beat, the camera flies over a jewel-like Naples by night, filled with futuristic giant murals and flickering lights. Somewhere on a deserted road, two punks high on pills point their guns at each other and one fires.

Soon a taxi is asking for admission at the metal gate to Don Antonio’s sprawling compound on the slopes of Vesuvius. The boys, screaming and laughing irrationally, have come to have the bullet removed from the injured one’s leg. The Don’s resident doctor (Roberto De Francesco) cynically prepares to operate, while the housemaid brings coffee and holds the boy down.

Another violent accident has occurred in the compound that night: Don Antonio’s attractive wife Armida has been mauled by their guard dogs and taken to the ER to have 12 stitches. All this Antonio learns when he wakes up and starts his day dispensing justice. The two drugged toughs get off with a warning and some pummeling. Next he forces a money lender to accept imaginary cash from a poor man who can’t afford the astronomical interest. The scene is both frightening with a threat of violence that could erupt any minute (all the Don’s bodyguards are armed, including his hothead son) and rather funny. Antonio’s charismatic, non-stop banter is highly ambiguous.

The third couple to fix up looks easy: a young laborer and his heavily pregnant girlfriend, whose problem is they’re short of cash. But it proves the most difficult, because it involves the boy’s father, a baker (Massimiliano Gallo, Loose Cannons.) The latter vaunts the fact he’s an honest, hard-working man who has made it good, but who has fallen out with his son because the boy won’t obey his every whim. The arrogant way he talks to the warm-hearted Don Antonio leaves no doubt who is the more appealing character. No matter how hard Don Antonio tries, he can’t bridge the father and son’s contempt for each other. The final scene in the Barracano apartment in Rione Sanita brings the petitioners together in a surreal last supper.

Tech work is all very strong, and production design by Carmine Guarino gives the locations a stylish, modern look that goes beyond the pathetic kitsch of most mafia films. (As Antonio explains, he comes from a family of goatherds who have to economize on architects when they build their illegal mansions.) Ralph P’s rap soundtrack is a big plus.

Production companies: Indigo, Rai Cinema, Malia
Cast: Francesco Di Leva, Massimiliano Gallo, Roberto De Francesco, Adriano Pantaleo, Daniela Ioia, Giuseppe Gaudino, Gennaro Di Colandrea

Director: Mario Martone
Screenwriters: Mario Martone, Ippolita Di Majo, based on Eduardo De Filippo’s play
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori, Alessandra Acciai, Giorgio Magliulo, Roberto Lombardi
Executive producer: Gabriele Oricchio
Director of photography: Ferran Paredes Rubio
Production designer: Carmine Guarino
Costume designer: Giovanna Napolitano
Editor: Giacopo Quadri
Music: Ralph P
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: True Colors

115 minutes