While dramas about the scourge of the Cosa Nostra on Sicily and its people have long been a staple of Italian cinema, Pasquale Scimeca’s “Placido Rizzotto” is more than a cut above most in its depiction of the tragic martyrdom of a minor folk hero. Impressively rigorous, affecting and surprisingly suspenseful given that its outcome is dolefully obvious from the start, this unconventionally calibrated, fascinating true story will make compelling viewing at festivals — starting with Venice and Toronto — and may score some specialized commercial bookings through enterprising distribs.
Opening in the early part of the 20th century, the title character is introduced as a young boy on the rural farmland of Corleone, Sicily, when his father (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli) is arrested and taken away on false accusations of criminal association. Lurching forward to 1945 and the end of WWII, Placido (Marcello Mazzarella) is seen again as a grown man, returning from battle to intervene as Mussolini’s soldiers prepare to hang a group of villagers. The agitated rhythms and rawness of this opening scene — shot with a furiously darting, panicked handheld camera by talented d.p. Pasquale Mari — get the drama off to a persuasive start.
As Placido gets reacclimated to village life, he observes the distribution of power taking place as a new Mafia chief moves in to assume control of the various families. This is conveyed, and Rizzotto’s family members and friends are introduced, via the novel device of a local oldster guiding village kids through a crudely drawn storyboard.
Having honed a burgeoning social conscience during the war, Placido bristles at the Mob’s appropriation of lands and local employment to be allocated as its members see fit, rather than by necessity or merit. He becomes leader of a local trade union chapter and starts rallying villagers to rise up, to fight against their own fear, occupy the land and redistribute the uncultivated fields to honest families. As the taunts of Mafia henchmen become increasingly menacing, their targets begin to take flight from the village. Placido’s sweetheart Lia (Gioia Spaziani) begs him to do the same, but his martyred destiny is signaled early on in a stylized Passion play performance.
While Scimeca’s screenplay effectively covers the various factions operating in Corleone at that time and gives a solid grounding for the events that befell Rizzotto, audiences unfamiliar with Sicilian postwar history may have some minor difficulty piecing together the components. However, when Placido disappears on the way home one night and his sad fate becomes evident, the drama is expertly transformed into a mystery as varying accounts of the evening unfold, each one supplying a new perspective and an additional element of truth.
One of the film’s most interesting aspects is the depiction of the criminal underworld at its most basic origins. The men pulling the strings here are ruthless uneducated peasants and unsophisticated countryfolk, light years away from the glamorized, Machiavellian operators that people American Mob dramas.
Arguably, Scimeca at times is overemphatic in his portrayal of the insidious evil at work within this grassroots Mafia. The rape of Lia by rising Mob linchpin Luciano Liggio, aka Lo Sciancato (Vincenzo Albanese) — planned in order to create grounds for an altercation with Rizzotto and cover the real reason for his death — seems unduly hammered. But mostly, the writer-director’s austerity, and his choice of an almost theatrical, non-naturalistic register for the actors, give this melancholy drama a judicious combination of power and poetry.
Closing section of the story shows the arrest of key figures behind Rizzotto’s death in newsreel footage, while the outcomes of other names that have since become part of Sicily’s dark history also are sketched in. These include Pio La Torre, who took up where Rizzotto left off, and Captain Della Chiesa, who conducted the investigation leading to the arrest of Liggio and others. Both were subsequently killed, while Liggio died in prison.
Assembling a gallery of extraordinary faces, all of which seem to belong to another era, the film boasts skilled work from little-known actors. Albanese is coldly chilling as the remorseless killer and Di Mazzarelli is moving as a father unable to come to terms with his son’s senseless death. Best known for his role as Marcel Proust in Raul Ruiz’s “Time Regained,” legit player Mazzarella quietly conveys the dignity, idealism and a sense of the indignation of his character, wielding an unassuming but nonetheless considerable screen presence and raising questions as to why this fine actor is so seldom used in Italian films.
Mari’s widescreen lensing gives the drama real visual sweep and the haunting modern score by Italian world-music exponents Agricantus effectively heightens the film’s mournful atmosphere.