The Mafia Doc "Excellent Cadavers"

Dennis Harvey November 2, 2006

Organized crime has always fascinated the movies. What could be more exotic than the private and “professional” lives of people who’ve centered whole existences in a methodical manner around being Bad? Not bad as in goat-sacrificing Satan worship, but bad as in profiting from “business” nearly every Average Joe and Jane would judge immoral, coercive, even slimy. The ultimate expression of this fascination is “The Sopranos,” a glorious soap opera about recognizably everyday people who just happen to…er, kill and get killed on a routine basis.

But who knows what the Mafia — or Cosa Nostra as it’s called in birthplace Sicily — is really like? Not the movies, in general. It appeals to filmmakers largely because the extreme secrecy of real life personnel in Italy, the U.S., and elsewhere — we’re not talking about the “Russian mafia,” or other cases where the term has been used to describe unrelated criminal syndicates — allows you to make up any damn thing you want.

Thus, films portraying the Mafia have run an incredible gamut, from the operatic, baronial grandeur of Coppola’s “Godfather” protagonists to the garish upwardly mobile aspirations of those in Scorsese’s “GoodFellas” and “Casino.” (The latter’s new, currently-in-theatres “The Departed” is centered on Boston-Irish “mafia,” but also involves the Italian-heritage kind.)

Mafia villains have long been routine in action movies — they were particularly popular as a vicious incarnation of “whitey” in ’70s blaxploitation flicks. Clueless, uncouth, deze-and-doze-ing Mafia types have also floated many a popular comedy, including such hits as “Analyze This,” “Midnight Run,” “Married to the Mob,” and “Sister Act.” Not to mention lowbrow teen classic “Weekend at Bernie’s” and recent animated “Shark Tale.”

Would any other self-respecting societal subset allow such rampant misrepresentation and caricature? Nah — but what are actual Mafia people gonna do? They ain’t talkin’. (Mainstream Italian American groups, on the other hand, have protested their frequent ethnic representation as Mafia thugs — most notably mounting a futile battle against “The Sopranos.”) As a result, the only Mafia-themed movies one can safely consider somewhat accurate are those drawn primarily from court testimony.

Their number includes “Find Me Guilty,” the Sidney Lumet-directed, Vin Diesel-starring film based on transcripts of the longest-running Mafia trial in U.S. history. Already out on DVD, this sharp, funny film came and went too quickly in theatres last March.

However, even its “reality” pales against the really-real chronicle of “Excellent Cadavers,” Marco Turco’s new documentary opening at the Roxie this week.

Curiously, a dramatized English-language version of these same events is already DVD-available under the same title, directed by Ricky Tognazzi with Chazz Palminteri and F. Murray Abraham portraying heroic real-life investigators. There’s also a 1993 Italian drama called “Giovanni Falcone,” with Michele Placido in the title role. But it’s hard to top the impact of the actual crime-scene photos in Turco’s edition. (It’s based on the 1996 book by Italian American investigative journalist Alexander Stille, who gets a rather gratuitous amount of “Look at me, I’m investigating!” screentime here.)

Native Sicilian newspaper photographer Letizia Battaglia doggedly recorded the slaughter of several hundred Costa Nostra, informants, police, judges, bodyguards, relatives, and innocent bystanders from the mid-‘70s through the early ’90s. Her images are grisly, to say the least. During that period, heroic investigators led by Giovanni Falcone (eventually assassinated, like most others) spearheaded an unprecedented, aggressive drive to root out and prosecute the island’s organized criminals. Their tentacles reach to Sicilian business, political and church honchos — extending as far as the Vatican.

It was not within their purview to indict the Mafia’s extended-arm muscle in the U.S. or South America. But an internal focus was more than enough to trigger brazen assassinations of public officials, as well as a bloody power struggle between Palermo families who’d long held power and the hungry rural-based Corleonesi determined to wrestle it away. Held under heavily fortified circumstances, the resulting “maxi-trials” seemed to signal a new era in potentially “clean,” crime-link-free Italian political and social life.

But Turco suggests there’s been nothing but backsliding since — with subsequent governmental regimes (not least that of current President, media magnate, and frequent corruption-charge target Berlusconi) aggressively limiting judicial power, undermining government prosecutors, dismantling a hard-won Witness Protection Program. Whose side are they on? The profit side, obviously.

“Excellent Cadavers” opines that Italy is now sunk as deep as ever in Mafia business — an “organic part of the political order” which the current State allows to (quietly) flourish anew by simply ignoring. This documentary has its flaws, but it’s still an education.