Late last year, when Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 World War II resistance drama Army of Shadows ended up on top of a number of critics’ polls and 10 Best lists, I didn’t fully share the enthusiasm of the film’s believers, yet I understood their ardor. For a movie that was 37 years old and had never played in the United States, Army of Shadows carried the shock of the new — it was bolder, fiercer, and more radical in vision than the vast majority of the movies released last year.
Now, Rialto Pictures, the company that rescued Army from the vaults, is trying for a similar feat of restoration and rediscovery with Mafioso, a 1962 black-and-white Italian feature starring Alberto Sordi as a genial and ordinary man — a Fiat factory foreman — who takes his family on a vacation to his ancient, rocky hometown in Sicily and ends up getting drafted, without his quite knowing it’s happening, to carry out an assignment for the Mob. Mafioso was actually released here briefly in the ’60s, so technically it won’t qualify for those year-end critics’ lists. Yet seeing the movie for the first time, I felt, even more than with Army of Shadows, that what was old had become new again. One of the first films to explore and expose the Italian underworld, Mafioso starts off as an ambling neorealist doodad, but the picture then explodes, quietly and without warning, into fear and threat and menace and blood — into the heartlessness of crime in the modern world.
The movie has been described — inaccurately, I think — as a comedy, and that’s because Sordi’s Antonio ”Nino” Badalamenti, with his fuddyduddy Clouseau mustache, his Latka Gravas eyes, and his air of extreme, almost preposterous middle-class ebullience, has the trappings of a born stooge. Arriving in his Sicilian village with his wife (Norma Bengell, a homespun Brigitte Bardot) and his two angelic daughters, he can’t get enough of the lemon-scented air, and he embraces his traditional family so giddily that you half expect him to burst into an aria. He also has nothing but fluttery reverence for Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), an old local legend with the face of an angry potato. As a youngster, Nino worked for him as a lookout, yet he appears to have no real idea of what the Don does.
Alberto Lattuada, the director of Mafioso, is known for codirecting Federico Fellini’s debut film, Variety Lights, and the first half of Mafioso feels a lot like early Fellini — a rambling, slightly precious yet bursting impasto of small-town life. Then the Don asks Nino to perform a favor. Nino thinks he’s going on a hunting trip, but instead he’s shoved into an airplane’s cargo hold, packed into a dark crate, and let loose in New York City, which is shot, from startling low angles counterpointed by white-hot blasts of jazz, as a vision of sleek hell. What happens next can’t help but make you think of Michael Corleone’s initiation into his family’s business, yet Mafioso does more than cast its fascinating shadow over The Godfather. It captures, in a stark yet haunting way, the indelible fact that no man is born a mobster.