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Endearing native son

Alberto Lattuada's `Mafioso,' newly restored, is a long-lost gem that deftly fuses comedy and drama.

January 26, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

You won't forget "Mafioso" and you won't be seeing another movie like it. A magnificent film almost no one knows about, this hidden classic offers a wider variety of pleasures than most contemporary works can even aspire to.

One of those pleasures is the joy of rediscovery that comes courtesy of a sparkling restoration by Rialto Pictures. "Mafioso" is a serious comedy from the classic age of Italian film that hasn't been seen in this country since its initial limited release in 1962, in part because its star and its director have fallen into undeserved oblivion.

"Mafioso's" director, Alberto Lattuada, was a major figure in Italian cinema best known today for co-writing and co-directing "Variety Lights" with a new talent named Federico Fellini.

Lead Alberto Sordi, a huge star in Italy in his day and known as a performer in whom Italians amusingly recognized, as one critic wrote, "the worst aspects of their character," can be seen to wonderful effect in two other early Fellinis, "The White Sheik" and "I Vitelloni." One of his great gifts, to simultaneously play comedy and drama with both naturalness and grace, is essential to "Mafioso's" success.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
'Mafioso': The review in Friday's Calendar section of Alberto Lattuada's recently restored "Mafioso" said the film hadn't been seen in this country since its initial release in 1962. The movie was released in Italy in 1962 but didn't play in the U.S. until 1964.

A further strength of this unclassifiable film is the way it's capable of changing tones with the subtlety and suddenness of reality. Though it seems to start out as a straight comedy, "Mafioso" ends up covering a wider range of emotions than we anticipate, and doing so with an effortlessness that is equally unexpected.

"Mafioso" not only deals with questions of loyalty, honor and tradition, it is also a very deft and loving satire of the cultural clash between the two parts of Italy, the industrious north, epitomized by Milan, and the slothful south, more specifically the island of Sicily, shown as home to the Mafia a decade before Francis Ford Coppola got into the act.

Sordi stars as Antonio "Nino" Badalamenti, introduced walking the floor of a huge Fiat car plant in Milan, where he is a foreman. Wearing a white coat and carrying a clipboard, with every hair on his head perfectly placed, Nino is the kind of precise individual ("a regular stopwatch") who causes people to work faster just by being around.

But though he has a blond Northern Italian wife, Marta (Norma Bengell), and two blond daughters, Nino is a son of indolent Sicily. More than that, he is preparing for a two-week vacation, his first trip home in eight years, planned so that his two families can meet one another.

Before he can leave, though, one of his bosses asks to see him. Does Nino by chance know Don Vincenzo, the capo di tutti capi in his small village? Who doesn't know Don Vincenzo, the town patriarch. Because paying his respects to this man is inevitable for all who return, Nino agrees to pass on a small gift from his boss.

Though he is all business in the North, Nino is truly a Sicilian at heart, a creature of enormous enthusiasm, especially where his home town is concerned. His wife is nervous about the trip -- "I am just seeing Italy fade away," she says wanly as their ferry leaves the mainland behind -- but Nino gets more and more emotional as he gets closer to his little village of Calamo.

As written by Rafael Azcona, Marco Ferreri and the team known as Age Scarpelli, "Mafioso" makes the comedic most of Nino's first days back in the bosom of his family, which includes his cantankerous father, suspicious mother and mustachioed sister. Whatever happens, from unexpected rainstorms to a hen under their bed, Nino is in heaven just because he's back in town, and the specificity of the social comedy is poignant and hilarious.

Visiting Don Vincenzo in a culture where being "a man of honor" means everything is a more serious matter. As played by Ugo Attanasio, the don is, in a manner of speaking, the law west of the Pecos, and he and his associates play the game on a different level than our Nino, whose high energy and boundless Sicilian pride endear him to us more.

As the cheerful, somewhat overmatched native son, Sordi gives a truly remarkable everyman performance, highly energetic yet very controlled, with only his wide, expressive eyes indicating how he actually feels. What "Mafioso" does with him resists easy summation, and that is the heart of its allure.

"Mafioso." MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles. Exclusively at Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 477-5581.

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