Director Alberto Lattuada's comedy-drama Mafioso could be called the godfather of "The Sopranos," and it feels like more than a coincidence that the Italian film is being released at roughly the same time as the last episodes of the HBO series (Sunday, April 8, marks the start of the final nine). "The Sopranos" blended drama, humor and violent pulp for an endlessly fascinating exploration of the tension between organized crime and family ties. Mafioso strikes nearly an identical blend of the same themes, but dates back to 1962, 10 years before Francis Ford Coppola made his mob hit.
Mafioso begins with such breezy, exuberant comedy that you could almost call it National Lampoon's Sicilian Vacation. Alberto Sordi (star of Fellini's The White Sheik) zestfully plays Nino, a time-obsessed technician at an automobile plant. "I'm a regular stopwatch," he declares, and organizes his family's vacation itinerary with such zeal, it's as if he wants to wring every second of pleasure from life. Nino speaks with a rapid, rolling patter and, while preparing for the trip, shaves with an electric razor in one hand and works an electric shoe-polisher in the other, so he won't waste a second.
Bringing his wife (Norma Bengell) and two small daughters to his home village in Sicily for the first time, Nino sings praises (literally) of the simple life, but his "modern" wife gets a chilly reception from the dour, black-clad townsfolk. Plus, Nino's every expression of Sicilian pride gets undermined by implications of violent criminality in his hometown.
When Nino delivers a seemingly innocuous package to Don Vincenzo (the lordly Ugo Attanasio), he gets enmeshed in plots he never expected. Mafioso anticipates now-familiar mob movie clichés, such as the way a phrase like "a little favor" contains sinister connotations. As the pale, sun-kissed black-and-white photography gives way to deep, gloomy shadows, the film's last half-hour unfolds as an unpredictable crime thriller with no jokes, but Lattuada so skillfully engages our interest in the story and characters that we don't need the laughs any longer.
With almost fiendish effectiveness, Mafioso reveals that Nino's claims on his home are nothing compared with his home's claims on him. "La Famiglia," like families everywhere, can specialize in making us offers we can't refuse.
Mafioso. 4 stars. Directed by Alberto Lattuada. Stars Alberto Sordi, Norma Bengell. Not Rated. Opens Fri., April 6. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.