Viewers who are tired of Sinatra-loving, sauce-stirring wiseguys with names like Jimmy No-Nose will surely appreciate HBO’s “Excellent Cadavers.” This admirable, if overly ambitious telepic avoids Armani-clad movie mobsters and instead investigates the Sicilian muscle behind the Mafia. As a companion piece to the cabler’s seriocomic “The Sopranos,” the true story takes a more somber approach to organized crime, visiting early- to mid-’80s Italy to unearth the seeds from which a lot of today’s gangster activity sprouted.
Based on the book by Alexander Stille, “Cadavers” (the title comes from a term given to dead politicos) studies Giovanni Falcone, a zealous prosecutor who died after a reasonably successful attempt to bring down the Cosa Nostra. Chazz Palminteri is solid as the determined lawman, and, as the world’s most dangerous Don turned snitch, F. Murray Abraham is an intense and likable madman. Their convincing performances more than make up for director Ricky Tognazzi’s uneven treatment that sometimes goes astray while trying to stay focused on the big picture. The passion is certainly there, but spanning this factual, multilayered landscape isn’t an easy thing to do.
In May 1992, Falcone (Palminteri) and his wife were killed in Palermo after a bomb destroyed their motorcade. Account then flashes back to 1980, when Falcone was a bankruptcy attorney trying to ascend the Italian court system’s ladder. After his mentor is bumped off by local Mafiosi, Falcone and partner Paolo Borsellino (Andy Luotto) continue the cause, becoming outspoken warriors against illegal activity.
Along the way, Falcone marries fellow magistrate Francesca Morvillo (Anna Galiena), and, as time passes, the high-profile bloodbaths become more frequent: delegates and civil servants are routinely whacked, and the public’s anger grows.
Falcone catches a break when kingpin Tommasso Buscetta (Abraham) is captured in Brazil and extradited to Rome. In exchange for his family’s guaranteed security, Buscetta agrees to testify about the intricate network of assassins and smugglers that have terrorized the nation.
The Falcones then move to the island of Asinara, where they prepare for a “maxi” trial at which hundreds of savage outlaws will be punished. A special Palermo courtroom is built to house the spectacle, and the defendants are swiftly sentenced to life in prison.
But while 344 men are eventually incarcerated, a crooked judge overturns 37 convictions, signaling that the battle will go on. Frustrated that his efforts have become futile, Falcone resigns and moves to Rome, where he becomes director of penal affairs before his fatal ambush.
Pic’s best asset is its reality; filmed in Rome and Palermo, it benefits greatly from a regional influence, both thematically and visually, and a genuine sense of time and place. There’s also a welcome urgency to the narrative, which concentrates more on background than glitz. In a year that has shined a humorous spotlight on the subject — “Analyze This” and “Mickey Blue Eyes” were cutesy — “Cadavers” reminds genre fans that there is a weighty history behind “the family” and not just colorful characters.
Besides strong turns from Palminteri and Abraham, Luotto shines as Paolo, whose sympathetic support of Falcone’s crusade is sensibly executed. Less noteworthy is Peter Pruce’s screenplay, which doesn’t always stir much excitement — consequences and emotional tussles are handled too lightly.
Tech credits are high-end all around, with a nod to Alessio Gelsini Torresi’s lensing and delicate production design from Andrea Crisanti, who makes five-star restaurants and elegant opera houses come to life.