Mafia stories, an evergreen TV genre in Italy, have rarely worked well theatrically, the one exception being Roberta Torre’s irreverent, tongue-in-cheek musical “Tano to Die For.” Marco Tullio Giordana’s true story “The Hundred Steps” fervently embraces the mainstream tradition, screaming its unarguable message of “united we stand, divided we fall” in the citizens’ war against organized crime. Though this would argue against big box office returns, biopic could recoup some audience thanks to its outrageously outspoken, over-the-top main character, Peppino Impastato, played with infectious defiance by newcomer Luigi Lo Cascio, and an exceptional cast of mainly unknown stage thesps. Pic’s warm reception in Venice competition should herald additional offshore sales.
When Peppino is a boy, his warm-hearted, extended Sicilian family defers to uncle Don Cesare (Pippo Montalbano), until the Don gets blown up by a car bomb. Power passes to Tano Badalamenti (Tony Sperandeo, a familiar Mafioso from the TV series “The Octopus”), who lives a hundred steps down the street from the Impastatos.
Teenage Peppino falls under the influence of a communist painter (Andrea Tidona) and becomes a party member. For a Mafia family, this is not good. His desperate father (Luigi Maria Burruano) does all he can to put the black sheep back on the path of crime, but Peppino defies him and shouts his contempt right under Tano’s window. Worse, he starts a rebel radio station (it’s now 1968) that ferociously mocks the local mob and its city hall cronies. At the end of his rope, dad flies to the U.S. to consult with cousin Anthony (Ninni Bruschetta), but as the film’s one-way-out storytelling makes clear, his son is a force of nature whom nothing can stop.
While an American movie would underline mob violence, Tullio Giordana downplays it to the max, creating an ominous atmosphere just from the looks people shoot one another. He is extremely passionate about the need for average Sicilians to speak out against the Mafia, and communicates his anger in several startling scenes. Peppino’s regular anti-mob rants are echoed by other brave kids working at the radio station. But film paints a broader picture of family problems. Auds can identify with Peppino’s frightened parent when he wrestles the boy to the ground, hysterically shouting, “Honor thy father.” His subdued brother Giovanni (Paolo Briguglia) also gets a chance to unleash his frustrations in an electrifying outburst.
The strong cast generates convincing passion that keeps the film moving up until a disappointingly conventional ending. But pic does capture some subtler emotions in the final confrontation between the unbowed Peppino and pere, whom Burruano plays beautifully, with the sad resignation of a misunderstood man. As Mom, Lucia Sardo has to fight her way out of being a bystander at funerals, to come across as a woman with a mind of her own; in one tense scene, Peppino forces her to read a Pasolini poem that calls a mother’s love “enslavement.” Actor-playwright Bruschetta delightfully cameos as the American cousin, a foppish boss with a Sicilian wife and an Andy Warhol painting as his sign of success.
A soundtrack of songs, including “Volare,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and Janis Joplin’s version of “Summertime,” makes a curious counterweight to this very Sicilian tale.