‘These fibs are our defence against organised crime’: the mafia on film

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Anti-mafia journalist and scriptwriter Roberto Saviano dissects the complexities of how Italian film-makers portray the Cosa Nostra on screen

You won’t recognise a member of the mafia. Whether you’re in Naples, Paris, London or Mexico City, you wouldn’t know the member of a crime syndicate from the next guy. Actually, it’s always been like that: the mafia have always seemed precisely the same as their law-abiding neighbours. Omerta, or the code of silence, originates accurately from this- quite apart from the fear of retaliation, omerta begins from a natural inclination not to betray one of your own. By extension, this code of silence can afflict people, whether ordinary people or politicians, who don’t want to be told stories that clash with the picture-postcard image they would like to project of their own country.

Back in 2009, it was Silvio Berlusconi who said:” If I find the man who became the brand-new serial of La Piovra[ The Octopus] and who writes books about the mafia which give us a bad odor in the nations of the world, I swear I will throttle him .” It was an unfortunate choice of words, but it reflects what many Italian legislators speculate. It was[ former prime minister] Matteo Renzi who labelled those, like myself, who abandoned the shine narration which had it that Italy had recovered from its economic crisis,” sellers of fate “.

Italy has the most dangerous and powerful mafia in the world; it is also the best at telling tales about the mafia. These narratives are our defense against organised crime, because how else do we learn about it? Some specimen: An inspired cinema entitled Gatta Cenerentola( Cinderella the Cat) has appeared, is provided by Mad Entertainment( a kind of Studio Ghibli in Naples ). The movie demonstrates what Naples could be if the Camorra were preserved out of works, and it could be allowed to flourish- and how things certainly are, where nothing is safe from mafia infiltration and change startles even those who would benefit from it.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1986 Il Camorrista( inspired by Giuseppe Marrazzo’s work) remains topical even decades later and manages to explain what it means to belong to criminal organisations where there is no way out. Il Camorrista showed that to be a member of the mafia is a contradiction of life itself: it is guile, subterfuge, disloyalties, it is affections relinquished on the altar of power, vendettas, it is the impossibility of being able to live without feeling hounded.

‘ My own work is influenced by these precedents, specially the decision to adopt the sole viewpoint of the criminal’ … Roberto Saviano. Photograph: David Levenson/ Getty Images

At the same time La Piovra was testifying on TV, so even then, there were already two ways of treating organised crime. In Il Camorrista, the perspective was purely that of the penal; while in La Piovra the induce was a police chief, Corrado Cattani, a beset persona who personified the struggle of the state against the mafia.

My own work is influenced by these precedents, specially the decision to adopt the sole viewpoint of the criminal; the choice is both considered and deliberate, and it is one which I will represent. When I am questioned:” Why is it that in the Tv succession Gomorrah there are no good characters ?” the ingenuousness of the question almost delivers a smile to my cheeks. A teach realises that his students are part of a criminal gang, maybe of one that took its participation in a shoot-out or a injure. What do you imagine the teach can do? Report them? Talk to his students? Would you ask a teacher to sacrifice his working life? Or maybe people who ask me that question would like to see on TV what does not exist. They might want to be reassured and think: I don’t have to worry and I can stay here comfortably on my sofa, experiencing the show.

I have chosen instead, to want to know what is actually happening so as to be able to take action. I want to know how criminal organisations work in real terms , not how we imagine they drive. I want to know how members live: whether they believe in God and who they pray to; I want to know whether before going out to commit murder they fondle their own children, caresses their wives, whether they manage to adore despite the brutality they are capable of.

” The mafia is a human phenomenon and like all human phenomena, it has a beginning, middle and will therefore also have an end ,” Giovanni Falcone used to say. Falcone was the reviewer killed by the Cosa Nostra in 1992 while studying its weak point. When criminal organisations kill, it’s because they’re weak. By using violence they intend to instil anxiety and get results that can’t be managed through intervention. When these facts of mafia life are impeded secret, if they remain within courtrooms and prison cells, reported only in the local press or crime pillars, the bloodshed will have achieved its purport. But when the floor is told, it’s as if a short-circuit comes; a story can overcome the rule of silence and help us understand the dynamics of the organisation and our own member. All it takes is a book, a television programme, a film to molted light on simply one side- this is all it takes to trigger a revolution.

‘ I want to know whether before going out to commit murder they nuzzle their children’ … Gomorrah. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito/ 2017 Beta Film

In Ettore Scola’s 1974 film C’eravamo Tanto Amati( We Used to Be So desired) a small state cinema is showing Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 film, the Bicycle Thieves, placed during Italy’s financial depression. One reference in C’eravamo Tanto Amati, Professor Caprigno, is so outraged by De Sica’s film; he gets up and says:” Films such as these are an offence to mercy, poetry and beauty. These dregs and slums disparage us in the face of the world .” Sometimes I feel as if we have never left that little state cinema, because the world is full of Professor Caprignos. A heap of them came out of the woodwork when Gomorrah( the book) started to be successful. And still today, many criticise Gomorrah( the Tv succession ), citing the same bills: Neapolitans feel humiliated, and Italians in general believe it bungles the image of their homeland.

What scares beings about films that tell the truth about criminality? Everything is taken away from happenings. The narrative is successful when the characters are authentic, with all the violence of their denials, because it shouldn’t be easy to like them. They are captured in the midst of the daily agony and blaze of their own lives. The powers of law and order and civil society take a back seat because that’s how it is in the minds of the specific characteristics we are depicting.

Criminal organisations are like authorities that operate by other means, like the multinationals that oversee their business with similar brutality. In The City of God, Saint Augustine writes:” If you take away justice, what are societies but massive mobs of thieves ?” When politics loses the path of justice, it molts its flesh to divulge a skeleton of banditry. When you offer people mafia crime narratives, you are speaking to people who can see in the stories of gangland the raw nature of capability: abuse, blackmail, subjugation. Some will say, where is the consolation?

If it’s consolation you’re after, lead “ve been looking for” it elsewhere.

* Translation by Clare Longrigg, David Budgen and Lorenzo Tondo

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