Origins of the Mafia, also known as Alle Origini della Mafia, is a fairly engrossing five-part English-Italian TV co-production from 1976. If you’re like me, you’ve watched just about every mob movie that’s come down the pike, but it’s rare to see one that examines the very beginnings of the Mafia, back in Sicily, over four hundred years ago. I understand that some historians doubt a mediaeval start date for la Cosa Nostra, and I’m certainly no expert on Sicilian or mob history (like any good American, most of my history background comes from the movies). But the all-star Origins of the Mafia makes a pretty good case for its origins beginning during the mid-16th century.
Episode 5: Omertà
Episode Five opens in 1875, when the government of Italy first officially investigates the crimes of the Mafia in Sicily, which has become a national scandal. A senator (Amedeo Nazzari) is sent down to investigate the murder of an orange grower who was killed for undercutting the prices of other farmers – who are protected by the Mafia. A witness to the killing, Vincenzo Biscetta (Paolo Bonacelli), has been driven mad by the death of his own don, Don Antonio Mastrangelo (Renzo Montagnan). Don Antonio, who controlled the water source that flowed to fellow Don Felice Balsamo’s (Claudio Gora) property, decides to buck the Mafia system and shut off the water to Don Balsamo’s property. He is promptly killed, and his bodyguard, Nino Sciallacca (Tony Lo Bianco) is immediately charged with the crime. Vianisi (James Mason), a famous lawyer, is engaged by Don Antonio’s widow, Rosa (Katherine Ross), to get Nino off. But why does she do that?
Separated into five, 50 minute episodes that span over three hundred years of Mafia history in Sicily, Origins of the Mafia, in a straightforward, TV miniseries manner, details not only milestones in the organization, but more interestingly, gives the viewer background on what external forces and social conventions may have created the Sicilian culture that has allowed the Mafia to flourish for over four hundred years. Whenever I see The Godfather or The Godfather Part II, I always wonder who those Sicilian guys are, walking around with berets and shotguns, guarding their dons, on the huge Sicilians estates. How did the system of patronage, extortion, and violence start there? The Mafia, at least in modern movies, always seems to be this monolithic entity that just is, that exists without a start or stop. Origins of the Mafia does a rather nice job of giving the viewer the background necessary to appreciate all the other mob movies, while telling a good story on its own.
Working within the miniseries framework, Origins of the Mafia has the time to tie in several theories about how the Mafia began, as well as nicely detail the evolving social and political conditions that may have encouraged its growth. The first episode sets up the notion that Sicilians, long ruled by foreign powers, came to distrust anyone but other Sicilians, while they relied on their own to take care of their own, as well as dispense their own justice. Episode Two details the further retreat of Sicilians from foreign rule, as well as their reliance on secret societies to right wrongs within in their communities. Episode Three illustrates the failure of the aristocracy to address the peasants concerns, with the nascent Mafia stepping in to provide justice – while lining their own pockets and consolidating their own power – in the vacuum created by a distant government and an uncaring, dissipated, decadent gentry. Episode Four shows the newly middle class Mafia moving into the world of politics, providing the “juice” by buying politicians and keeping order – as long as it consolidates their power. And Episode Five shows the depth of the Mafia’s hold over ordinary peasants, and their reach within every single transaction – whether business, political, or personal – in the lives of Sicilians.
Origins of the Mafia’s miniseries format doesn’t offer great “cinematic” moments that you’re likely going to remember. It’s isn’t that kind of film. Storytelling comes first and last here; watching Origins of the Mafia is like diving into a really long, good book that, while not stylistically compelling, is dramatically most satisfying. It’s a good yarn, plan and simple, and it’s straight-ahead, flat TV style perfectly suits the material. Spectacular location shooting in Sicily aids enormously in recreating the historic atmosphere (it’s apparent real interiors, not sets, were used as well). Where one might quibble is in the film’s use of name Hollywood actors to anchor the various episodes. The Italian actors, of course, fit in perfectly. And while some of the American actors acquit themselves quite well (that fantastic, underrated actor Tony Musante is near-perfect in his role), others flounder (what the hell is Joseph Cotton doing here playing a Spaniard, and even more mind-boggling, Katherine Ross playing a vengeful Sicilian?). As well, the final episode, while benefitting from the presence of always marvelous James Mason (as an Italian?), doesn’t fit in nearly as well as the previous episodes in detailing specific evolutions of the Mafia throughout Sicilian history. But it’s a small point.
Cast and Crew:
Richard Johnson, Lee J. Cobb and Joseph Cotten
Writers: Gian Domenico Giagni (screenplay), Enzo Muzii (screenplay)Creator: Roy Huggins
Production Company: Incorporated Television Company (ITC), Radiotelevisione Italiana
Audio/Visual: mono, color
Date Release: 1976
Additional details in:
Origins of the Mafia in IMDB
Watch some more full episodes:
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Filed Under: Origins of the Mafia