August 18, 2010

Movie Review: "The Sicilian Girl"

Basquiat playing at the same theater
was an ill omen.
Spoiler Alert!
By Niccolò Graffio and Giovanni di Napoli
"You have died for what you believed in, but without you, I too am dead" — Rita Atria, diary
Last Saturday (August 14, 2010) Niccolò Graffio and I went to Manhattan's Film Forum movie theater to see Marco Amenta's "The Sicilian Girl," a movie loosely based on the short life of Rita Atria, a young girl whose testimony played a crucial part in the convictions of several Mafiosi back in the 1990's. Normally I don't subscribe to Mafia genre films because I feel they tend to glorify gangsterism and promote negative stereotypes about Southern Italians, especially Sicilians. However, I was curious to see how the heroic Paolo Borsellino, a Sicilian magistrate assassinated in 1992 for his anti-Mafia crusade, and Rita Atria, the daughter of a murdered Don, were portrayed.
Typical of the movie industry, they took an incredible story and snuffed the life out of it. In fact, they didn't even have the courtesy of naming Borsellino's character (played by the talented Gérard Jugnot) who was simply referred to as "the prosecutor." I'm aware the movie was called "The Sicilian Girl" and focused primarily on Rita "Mancuso" (Veronica D'Agostino), but after the murder of her beloved father and brother, Borsellino was a major, almost father-like figure in Atria's life. It was, after all, his murder that led to her decision to kill herself. In Rita’s suicide note (which the movie egregiously left out for a more mawkish ending) she wrote, "I am devastated by the killing of Judge Borsellino. Now there's no one to protect me, I'm scared and I can't take any more."*
Niccolò Graffio: Giovanni, like you, I'm not a fan of gangster movies. The genre historically shows these criminals in a positive, almost envious light. Let's not also forget the fact the bulk of these movies are poorly written and executed. Even those that are well-written and produced, like The Godfather and Scarface suffer from this moral defect. To me, that shows extremely poor judgement on the part of those in the movie industry. With the very rare exception of movies like Matteo Garrone's brilliant Gomorrah, which ripped the face off the Neapolitan crime syndicate known as the Camorra and laid it bare for the world to see, we can safely say the days of Little Caesar are long gone.
As for the charge of promoting ethnic stereotypes? Well, the late Art Buchwald, in a syndicated article he wrote several years before his death, charged that anti-Italianism (i.e. against Southern Italians) is the last socially acceptable form of ethnic bigotry left in America. Certainly Shark Tale and TV shows like Jersey Shore are indicative of that fact. I can't for the life of me imagine any movie or TV production company churning out films about Jewish or black gangsters for very long and avoiding the charge of racism.
As for this film? I too, had a number of problems with it from the beginning. It was understood, and not even tacitly I might add, this was a movie about the life of the late Rita Atria. Why then the need to change the name of the central character? The ending leaves no doubt as to the true identity of "Rita Mancuso", so the defense of legal formalities is bogus. Despite this, the movie actually did pick up a little steam as it went along, then came crashing down in the last 20-25 minutes.
Giovanni di Napoli: Aside from the Borsellino slight and sentimental pap, my biggest problem with the film was the lax security during Rita's time under the witness protection program. I don't want to give too much away, but I find it very difficult to believe the Italian authorities, no matter how impotent they may be against organized crime and corruption, would have allowed their key witness in a major Mafia trial the freedom to come and go as she pleased without constant surveillance and protection. It was almost like watching the bumbling FBI agent, Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis) guard the "lovable" gangster, Vincent Antonelli (Steve Martin) in the 1990 Mafia spoof, "My Blue Heaven."
NG: Incredulity has always been a hallmark of the film industry, yet the viewer is to believe this young lady, a leading witness in one of the biggest anti-mafia trials of the time, was allowed to come and go as she pleased in a country that is riddled from top to bottom with corruption and organized crime. Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone travelled with heavy security; that didn't stop them from being murdered.
GdN: The jokes about the most unbelievable part of any movie is the disclaimer that states it’s "Based On A True Story" and “only the names, places and facts have been changed" most definitely applies here. I should have kept my usual aversion towards "mafia films" and never have suggested it. I only hope this film doesn't discourage people from researching the true life-stories of courageous individuals like Rita Atria, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, whose memories deserve better than this movie.
NG: Two other things about this film I didn't like: the total omission of the courage of Rita Atria's sister-in-law, Pierra Aiello. In fact, she isn't even mentioned in the film. Another is the way Rita is portrayed as being driven by a desire for vengeance. That was undoubtedly true in the beginning, but as excerpts from her diary show, as time progressed she came to realize the world she grew up in was fatally flawed and needed to be changed. Had this epiphany been more graphically illustrated, along with the deep emotional bond that developed between her and "the prosecutor", it would have added a more human dimension to this sadly predictable and formulaic piece of cinema. All together this was a bad film and I recommend people avoid it. Rita Atria and Paolo Borsellino deserved better.
* Quote reprinted from The Independent, Monday, September 21st, 1992