Using an almost anthropological approach to the way Mob life can attract and then repel an average Sicilian, “The Sweet and the Bitter” might not bring much new to the anti-Mafia genre, but it’s a tightly packaged, well-played, character-driven drama with the bonus of a good sense of humor. That it stars charmer Luigi Lo Cascio is an additional draw, adding complexity and sympathy to the protag without minimizing his petty egotism or brutality. Prospects at home are strong, with assured play at offshore Italo weeks, though major fest awards will be elusive.
From the opening scenes it’s clear Saro Scordia (Lo Cascio) is willing to set aside personal beliefs for a chance at the kind of respect accorded to the Cosa Nostra. When Saro was a boy, his father was killed in a prison riot, but local mobster Gaetano Butera (Tony Gambino, quite a name for an actor essaying Mafia roles) takes him under wing and sees to it that he appreciates the power that comes from being connected.
A brief stint in jail brings Saro in contact with Uncle Ciccu (Renato Carpentieri), a “Godfather” type who shows him special favor and the prospect of influential patronage on the outside. Once sprung, Saro gets increasingly important assignments, including a bank job in Turin that results in a hilarious exchange between the robbers’ incomprehensible Sicilian and the Italian-speaking teller.
A killing ordered in Milan doesn’t go as smoothly as expected, largely because Gaetano’s spoiled son Mimmo (Gaetano Bruno) freezes at the crucial moment, but Saro and Mimmo are soon received by the Mafia council and officially become “men of honor.”
The one sticking point for Saro is Ada (Donatella Finocchiaro), the girl he’s in love with, who isn’t willing to be a Mafia wife. When Ada moves north, Saro follows Mob dictates by marrying another woman and starting a family, but the irrational cruelty and bloodthirsty power struggles gradually lead him to question his place in the hierarchy.
Pic’s title — at the start, Saro’s dad tells him life is a combination of sweet and bitter — has intentionally ironic overtones, especially at the beginning, when it sets auds up for the Mafia’s lesson of accepting whatever the crime families dictate. Bittersweet pretty much covers the film through to the end, though it could have packed a bigger punch had it downplayed the sugared elements.
Still, helmer Andrea Porporati captures the extent of the Mafia’s reach throughout society, not only among the working class but up through the aristocracy. None of this is remotely glamorized: The induction ceremony is deliberately borderline ridiculous, and the true heart of both the film and Saro himself lies with Ada’s uncompromising stance.
As always, Lo Cascio makes the most of his role, giving Saro a passionate, confused complexity that reinforces the commonality of both the man and his situation; the unexpected intensity of his scene immediately following the Milanese hit is the actor’s showiest moment, but he’s equally fine in the quieter passages. One of these days Finocchiaro will be given a role similar to her stunning turn in “Angela,” but until then, this superb actress continues to bring heart and soul to everything she graces, no matter how small.
Stylistically, “The Sweet and the Bitter” is more open, less claustrophobic than Porporati’s “Empty Eyes.” The helmer and his lenser, Alessandro Pesci, juxtapose Sicily’s considerable natural beauty with the corrosivenss of Mafia rules, making the latter appear even crueler. Ezio Bosso’s score is full of rich orchestrations that build at just the right moments, often present but never overwhelming the image.