The film godfather of 'Godfather'

Although it played only briefly in New York in the '60s, Alberto Lattuada's "Mafioso" was clearly an influence on the generation of Mafia films that came after, including "The Godfather."

Rialto Pictures, which last year brought out Jean-Pierre Melville's wonderful "Army of Shadows," is also responsible for this latest reclamation. Following its acclaim at last year's New York Film Festival, "Mafioso" is being released theatrically around the country, starting in New York and Los Angeles.

Lattuada is primarily known in this country for his codirecting collaboration with Federico Fellini on Fellini's first feature, "Variety Lights" (1950). But Lattuada had been writing and directing movies since the early '40s and continued on into the late '80s. His career is ripe for a full-scale retrospective.

Compared with directors such as Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Francesco Rosi, Lattuada was distinctly unadventurous. His camerawork and storytelling were spare and straightforward. But within his limitations he had a wonderful talent. Of the half dozen or so films of his that I've seen, "Mafioso" is the best.

Alberto Sordi, that icon of Italian cinema, plays Antonio Badalamenti, a Sicilian who makes a nice living managing a Fiat plant in Milan. He returns home to show off his beautiful blond wife (Norma Bengell) and two lovely daughters at a family reunion and also to pay homage to Don Vincenzo, the local Mafia capo who arranged for the Milan job.

Antonio is a dutiful son of Sicily but he's no gangster. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Don Vincenzo has an errand for him to perform. And therein lies the black comedy of the situation. Antonio becomes a stooge in a deadly game he could have foreseen if only he had not been such an innocent.

Although the film plays like a comedy, it has serious undertones. Antonio's initial welcoming reception by his large family is high caricature – there is much wailing and flailing. But we soon see that all is not well.

Antonio's wife, because she is from the north and does things like smoke during dinner, is eyed as the Other. Antonio's father is involved with a neighbor in a raucous dispute over land rights that threatens to spill over into mayhem. (One word of advice: Never call anybody from Sicily a "cornuto" – cuckold.)

Sordi brings a heartiness to the role that pulls the movie along without a hitch, a clown with leading man looks, and both attributes serve him well here. As he sinks deeper and deeper into calamity, Antonio is ever more game. His desperation is unmistakable to everyone, except himself. It's a marvelous performance in a marvelous movie, one that sneaks up on you while you're watching it. Grade: A–

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