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The Mafia, Misunderstood
Hollywood fails to capture the complexity of the real thing.


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The American fascination with the mafia seems never to abate. This is a rare instance in which Hollywood has regularly fed an American appetite with sophisticated fare. Just in the past few months, the superbly crafted The Sopranos finally got what was coming to it with an Emmy award for best drama; Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) was released on DVD; and AMC ran multiple showings of The Godfather trilogy. Not deserving of comment is the new low in reality TV, Growing Up Gotti. What should be added, however, is this summer’s Criterion Collection DVD release of Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), a glorious film based on an even better novel by Lampedusa–in fact, the best-selling novel in Sicilian history.

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An early 1960s Italian film based on a novel about Sicily in the 1860s might seem utterly irrelevant to Scorsese’s masterpiece about American mobsters. But, as Tony Soprano wistfully and nostalgically reminds us, contemporary mafia life is but a shadow of the family of the old world. When American audiences think about the glory days of the mob, they are apt to think of The Godfather trilogy that repeatedly points, and then takes us back, to the Sicilian roots of the mob.

Unlike The Godfather, Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a peculiarly American drama that anticipates many of the themes from The Sopranos. Both productions capture the exuberance, the adventure, and especially the perverse humor of mob life. Recall the scene from Goodfellas in which the novice Henry (Ray Liotta) and the jaded Tommy (Joe Pesci) are digging up a corpse. Tommy mocks Henry for his sensitivity to the foul odor: “Henry, hurry up will you? My mother’s gonna make some fried peppers and sausage for us. Oh hey, Henry, Henry. Here’s an arm.” But the film does not celebrate mob life. It captures Henry’s upward path, his escape from the life of a “nobody” to his status as a “somebody.” Henry explains: “For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked sh**ty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers….If we wanted something, we just took it.” But the film is even more convincing in its portrayal of Henry’s subsequent dramatic downward spiral into drug addiction and the mutually exacerbating fears of being trapped by the law or eliminated by other members of the mob.

American audiences are attracted to such portrayals for many reasons, not least of which is that The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos are remarkably well crafted. But Americans can treat these productions as a form of entertainment precisely because the mafia and organized crime operate at the margins of most American lives. What would it be like to live in a society permeated by mafia influence and culture? Modern Sicily provides an excellent case study.

The problem for anyone attempting to understand modern Sicily is that it cannot be separated from medieval or ancient Sicily. To begin at the beginning, one would have to go back nearly to the dawn of recorded history, to the ancient battles over what we now call the island of Sicily, to the days when the Phoenicians built altars to sacrifice children to the god Baal. The medieval era was certainly a crucial time; in recounting it, one might start with Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers, a history of the events preceding, and the repercussions of, the famous Sicilian rebellion against Angevin rule–a rebellion that began in Palermo on March 30, 1282, as the bells were ringing for vespers. Rebels cried out “Death to the French,” and initiated a slaughter that spread over much of the island.

Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sicily was a prized possession, a place of transition between East and West, Islam and Christianity. This interaction made Sicily an astonishingly cosmopolitan locale. Medieval Sicily could boast not only of its early constitutional codes and its diverse cultures, but also of its ancient Greek theaters and Christian churches as stunning as any in Rome or Paris. But with the vanishing of feudalism and the continued affliction of being ruled from afar, Sicily suffered a political and legal vacuum at the local level, a vacuum eventually filled by the mafia. (The opportunistic Calogero from Lamepdusa’s Leopard is often taken to be an early representative of the mafia type.) In his remarkable travelogue and cultural history, Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb describes the paradoxes at the heart of this parasitic rule that “grew in the space between the state and the people”: “[O]utlaw but tolerated, secret but recognizable, criminal but upholding of order….The mafia ripped off everyone as it protected everyone…above all against itself.” Robb’s book also nicely captures the culinary and cultural attractions of Sicily as it weaves together stories of sumptuous meals, famous literary lives with political intrigue, plots, and bloody assassinations.

Both Midnight in Sicily and Alexander Stille’s Excellent Cadavers, whose title is taken from the mafia slang for the murdered corpses of troublesome political and legal figures, see a turning point in Sicilian life in the late 1980s an early 1990s, a time when mafia tactics involved unprecedented public violence, whose horrifying consequences exceeded anything in the The Godfather, Goodfellas, or The Sopranos. With “bloodletting at its height,” Palermo became a world of nightmare violence. Robb quotes an observer: “Killers roamed the streets on big motorbikes at high noon, firing almost casually. Beheaded corpses were left in cars at the railroad station, dead men were burned on downtown streets, bodies were dumped at the door of police headquarters. The atmosphere was pitiless, terrible in its arrogance.”

Stille’s Excellent Cadavers captures the heroic attempts of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino–Sicilian magistrates blown to bits by bombs in the late spring of 1992–to prosecute mafia crimes. As Falcone observed, the most revolutionary thing in Sicily would be “simply to apply the law and punish the guilty.”

Falcone, who grew up among mafia families in Sicily, thought that the mafia represented a “criminal extreme of certain values that by themselves are not bad: courage, friendship, and respect for tradition.” Falcone was aware that in this world “everything is a message”; the successful investigator must mimic the skills of the successful Sicilian criminal. He must learn how to interpret signs, gestures, and silences. It is not just that every act of torture and murder is intended to teach, to instruct others, in the fashion of Dante’s inferno, by making the punishment fit the offense. It is also that the threat of death is omnipresent; such constant fear sharpens one’s awareness–no detail is too small, nothing can be left to chance. These rules apply to the investigator as well as the criminal.

Such heightened awareness, a sense that something of great significance could happen at any moment, the adventurous risking of life itself–all these are attractions of the mafia life. What is most interesting and instructive about Falcone is not that he grew up in the midst of the mafia against which he eventually turned all his investigative capacity, or that his prosecutorial tactics were so unusually successful. Instead, what most instructs in Falcone’s life is his commitment to truthfulness, the rudiments of which he claims to have learned from the mafia itself. Falcone notes the complex set of rules governing speech in the mafia–the absolute prohibition against lying within the organization, and the code of silence or omerta outside. Falcone discovered the noble ethical principle buried in the mafia’s perversion of the moral law: “[T]he categorical imperative of the Mafiosi, tell the truth, has become a key principle in my own personal ethics…however strange it might seem, the mafia taught me a lesson in morality.”

The famous Sicilian novelist and sometime political figure Leonardo Sciascia once called Sicily a “metaphor for the modern world,” but it seems more like a country that skipped modernity altogether and that moved directly from the feudal world of the Middle Ages into a kind of post-modernity, a world in which truth is elusive, in which having knowledge of a crime is more dangerous than committing one. This is the world captured in the modernist fiction–with its “metaphysics of uncertain identity,” of social masks and of the gap between appearance and reality–of Sicily’s most well-known writer, Pirandello, author of Six Characters in Search of an Author.

As impressive as they are, popular American depictions of the mafia seem quaint by comparison with the Sicilian reality, which is more mysterious, more inviting, more captivating, and more dangerous than the world of American film and TV. Despite occasional proclamations on The Sopranos that it’s a “big nothing,” popular American productions never seem to go very far in the direction of the unraveling of truthfulness and meaning. Conversely, they also fail to capture the possibilities, embodied in the lives of Sicilians Falcone and Borsellini, of a martyrdom for truth and justice.

Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.



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