Mafia mini: An offer Italos can’t refuse

Falcone, Borsellino skeins drawing viewers

ROME — For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Italo TV viewers were glued to their screens by “The Octopus,” a spellbinding skein in which a fictional cop fought the Cosa Nostra.

These days, it’s the real-life investigations and tragic assassinations of anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both blown up by the Cosa Nostra in 1992, that are primo primetime fodder, while also causing friction between pubcaster RAI and Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial rival Mediaset.

“Giovanni Falcone,” RAI’s two-part reconstruction of Falcone’s probes into Sicilian mob affairs, aired on RAI 1 on Oct. 2 and 3, scoring top ratings with 27.5% and 29.4% audience shares respectively.

Producer Carlo Degli Esposti is especially pleased with “Falcone’s” results, because Mediaset had mounted a fierce last-minute counterprogramming offensive, moving hot new drama “Honor and Respect,” about Sicilian immigrants uprooted in 1950’s Turin, and popular cop series “Police District” to the same nights on flagship Canale 5 to battle the anti-Mafia docudrama.

“They took all their best stuff for the week and shifted it into the two slots we were playing,” says Degli Esposti. “Too bad that we won anyway.”

Mediaset’s move sparked a furor, prompting TV host Pippo Baudo to lash out during RAI’s Sunday variety show “Domenica In” against the Silvio Berlusconi-controlled broadcaster, which he accused of “disrespecting a man (Falcone) who died for us all.”

While Mediaset may have mounted a particularly belligerent offensive against “Falcone,” Berlusconi’s web has not ignored Italy’s slain anti-Mafia crusaders. Mediaset’s more fictionalized, action-packed, anti-Mafia mini “Borsellino,” which aired in 2004, scored a nearly 40% audience share, making it the web’s top-rated TV drama that year.

Per Degli Esposti, “Falcone” took longer to make because its more rigorous approach required meticulous research. Skein preemed with a screening in the Palermo tribunal’s bunker-like anti-Mafia courtroom, watched by 400 of the anti-Mafia magistrates’ close former collaborators, several of whom were consultants on the skein.

“We made a very rigorous choice to depict Falcone the man, not the hero; these are open wounds that need to be depicted accurately, without overdramatizing,” Degli Esposti says.

Meanwhile, Falcone and Borsellino’s efforts to eradicate the Sicilian Mafia is covered in Italo docu “Excellent Cadavers,” helmed by Marco Turco, which recently unspooled Stateside.

Docu is based on a book of the same title by U.S. journo Alexander Stille, which also was the basis for the eponymous 1999 HBO telepic helmed by Ricky Tognazzi.

Meanwhile, RAI and Mediaset are readying more dueling Mafia minis.

Both will start shooting later this month on rival projects about supreme Cosa Nostra boss Bernardo “The Tractor” Provenzano, captured in April in a cottage outside Corleone, Sicily, after 43 years on the lam.

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