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'The Mafia Only Kills In Summer,' A Coming Of Age Tale To The Beat Of Organized Crime

courtesy Distrib Films

We Americans love stories about the Mafia, or at least movie versions of Italian crime organizations. Many of us admire Clemenza's mix of cold killer and adorable family man in The Godfather. You don't have to look any farther than the often quoted line, "Leave the gun; take the canoli." There's real denial of what it shows about Clemenza and most everyone else in the film.

Films made in Italy, like The Mafia Only Kills in Summer, have a different attitude toward the Mafia.

The Mafia Only Kills in Summer begins with a bouncy, innocent, autobiographical rhythm something like Michael Moore's Roger and Me. It's jokey with a sardonic humor that runs just beneath the action. But the movie has no sentimentality or fondness for what it describes. The humor is the surface of satire. It's a ruse to draw us into the life of the lead character where it's clear that none of this is a joke.

The film is told by the central character, Arturo, as a youngish father looking back on his life. In a lovely animated sequence, all but one of Arturo's father's sperm reverses course to swim in the wrong direction, because a Mafia bomb explodes on the street while Arturo's parents are conceiving him. And so, the Mafia was there before Arturo's birth, and apparently at every other significant moment for years.

Young Arturo wins an essay contest on the subject of "A Day in Palermo," but as he's about to read the essay at a ceremony, word comes that a courageous anti-Mafia official has been assassinated and the event is canceled.

Arturo's entire life is dominated by the horrors of the Sicilian Mafia – as is the life of the country in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. As a boy, Arturo falls hopelessly in love with Flora, and the twin threads of Mafia killings and failed love make up his story.

The film is written, directed and acted by Pierfrancesco Diliberto, an Italian TV personality who calls himself Pif and has been compared to John Stewart. Pif moves and talks with a manic energy that makes you nervous, but then you sense that this is the spirit of Italy in these years. It's the agitation of a countrywide self-deception that everything is OK while this group of criminals literally blows up the justice system, murdering judges and anyone else fighting for justice.

Arturo measures his life by bombings, and showing these actual events through the mind of a boy makes them blunt and unavoidable. Italian movies have a tradition of child characters that see the truth when the adults are incapable of it. The naive observations of this child uncover the subject. The film shows Arturo's experience without adult perceptions and justifications. It comes at you unfiltered; there's no judgment or even context.

Arturo stays childish well into his adult life. He's a stunted figure; like his country he's unable to reach maturity for a long time. It's there in his bland non-reactions to the endless assassinations and also in his inept, hopeless attempts to reach Flora

The movie slowly lets the sheer number of the assassinations gather weight. The blank tone feels inadequate as you come to appreciate that actual people are being murdered, and not by the folksy Corleones.

The Mafia Only Kills in Summer has been compared to Life Is Beautiful, a movie about the Holocaust. But Roberto Begnini's film is about helping a child survive horror. This film is about someone growing up and reaching a point of understanding – and even becoming mature enough to explain to his own son.

The Mafia Only Kills in Summer finds sober memory as a remedy for false hilarity, and it's satisfying.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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