It Was the Son (E' Stato Il Figlio): Venice Review

Tragic-comic mafia tale told in bold visuals opts for cruel satire over empathy

The solo directing bow of Daniele Cipri' showcases Toni Servillo and Gisella Volodi in a paradoxical Sicilian tale.

Stunningly lensed around a homespun mafia tragi-comedy, but lacking even a shred of sympathy for its grotesque characters, It Was the Son (a.k.a. The Son Did It) describes a dysfunctional family from the underbelly of Palermo as monstrous stereotypes whose future is as dead-end as the highway leading to their gray housing block. There are some rueful smiles along the way but look for no heart-felt comedy in this adaptation of a novel by Roberto Alajmo. This cruel satire on the Italian South certainly has curiosity value, but it ends up feeling too flat and bleak to make a serious splash at the boxoffice after its Venice and Toronto bows.  

The film marks the first solo feature directed by Palermo-born writer, filmmaker and cinematographer Daniele Cipri, best known for co-directing angry, paradoxical tales like The Uncle From Brooklyn with Franco Maresco.  Here again he takes a big bite into the bitter fruit of Sicily.

The film is told as a story within a story recounted by a glassy-eyed old-timer in the post office while he waits to pay some bills. Outside, a car crash suggests another tragedy unfolding, but the man (Alfredo Castro) has the ear of his listeners. He begins by saying he knows a boy who killed his father over a scratched car. Flashback to the family in question – grandma and grandpa, mother (Gisella Volodi) and father (Toni Servillo), two kids – who share a small apartment in a dilapidated housing project.  Money is tight and the frazzled father Nicola tries to teach his gaping 20-year-old son Busu (Alfredo Castro) the ropes of the family business: stripping the rusty hulls of wrecked ships while trying to beat other scavengers to their copper and iron.

As the characters define themselves, they seem to parody a human family. Self-interest is the name of the game, and Busu’s arrogant cousin (Piero Misuraca) who supports his family with crime is admired by all. The decisive scene is a relaxing day at the beach, where the camera lingers over obese bathers displaying rolls of fat with the same empathy as Ulrich Seidl filming his fellow Austrians. The father’s verbal abuse of his son rhymes with his being overly physical with his young daughter, whom he adores but fails to protect. That very afternoon, she’s caught in the cross-fire of two mafia killers.

This tragedy has a silver lining, however, because the family can claim government compensation for the girl’s death, money that will permit Nicola to realize a lifelong dream. But this dream inevitably leads to the tragedy promised by the story-spinner in the post office – with a terrible, well-hidden twist.

It’s a poisonous tale whose underlying absurdity could be taken as social commentary, had the characters been given any semblance of human feeling. They are actually the source of their own undoing, people who shield the Mafioso next door and let their kids play with fire. The wrap-up scene in which Granny (Aurora Quattrocchi) becomes the unexpected protagonist is a small jewel, but it reinforces the idea that poor Southerners are monsters. Political correctness aside, a little more affection for these characters could have put their dreams and desires in a recognizable emotional context and made a much stronger film.

On the plus side, top-drawer acting does a fine job balancing the tone between comic and tragic. Servillo delivers another bravura turn as the permanently disgruntled Nicola, keeping him at a high pitch throughout. As his better half, the gaunt Volodi expresses the mother’s reactions in silent theatrical mannerisms, and Chilean actor Alfredo Castro (Tony Manero, Post Mortem) does a ghostly guest turn as the unkempt storyteller.

The director’s own bold lighting choices give character to the retro-but-timeless Palermo setting (which was actually shot in the southern region of Apulia.) An inventive cinematographer who has photographed the last two Marco Bellocchio pictures, Cipri likes to view the action from high, unsettling angles like divine judgement, which works well with Maestro Carlo Crivelli’s formal score.


Venue: Venice Film Festival, Sept. 1, 2012.
Production companies: Passione, Babe Films in association with Palomar, Rai Cinema, Aleteia Communication, Faro Film

Cast: Toni Servillo, Gisella Volodi, Alfredo Castro, Fabrizio Falco, Aurora Quattrocchi, Benedetto Raneli, Piero Misuraca, Giacomo Civiletti, Alessia Zammitti, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio
Director:  Daniele Cipri’
Screenwriters: Massimo Gaudioso, Daniele Cipri’ based on a novel by Roberto Alajmo
Producers:  Alessandra Acciai, Giorgio Magliulo, Carlo Degli Esposti, Fabio Conversi
Director of photography:  Daniele Cipri’
Production designer: Marco Dentici
Costumes: Grazia Colombini
Editor: Francesca Calvelli
Music: Carlo Crivelli
Sales Agent: Rai Trade
No rating, 90 minutes.