Popular TV satirist Pierfrancesco Diliberto, known as Pif, does a remarkable job negotiating the delicate balance between humor and heartrending emotion in his terrific feature debut, “The Mafia Kills Only in the Summer.” Highlighting the mob’s pernicious influence over average Sicilians, the pic takes an Everyman from childhood to maturity, showing how complacency and willful blindness allowed the Cosa Nostra to flourish until high-profile killings finally opened people’s eyes. Familiarity with the real figures involved helps build tension, but isn’t a requirement for appreciating the clever comedy and powerful message. B.O. returns after two weeks have been respectable.
Offshore, Euro arthouses may be the best way to go, while Italo showcases worldwide should race to program this rare laffer from a peninsula not known in recent years for intelligent satires. Pif is cognizant of the discomfort that will arise from jokes about figures whose reign of terror hobbled a nation, and there are moments when audiences will wonder if laughing about gangland whackings isn’t in bad taste, yet it becomes increasingly clear that the helmer-scripter is using humor to cut Mafia bosses down to size, thereby turning an accusatory glare at an Italy that granted these people power.
While voiceovers have become omnipresent lately, here it works, as Arturo (Pif) wins viewer sympathy by describing his decades-long crush on Flora (Cristiana Capotondi). Jumping back, he amusingly describes his conception in 1969 via cute animation and adept editing, his father’s sperm racing to fertilize the egg just as the notorious Mafia hit known as the Viale Lazio massacre is taking place in the same Palermo building. Such intersections become common throughout Arturo’s life (and, by implication, in the lives of many Palermitani) as he and his family casually bump into mob members and their victims over the course of the coming decades.
As a schoolboy, Arturo (Alex Bisconti) falls fast for new girl Flora (Ginevra Antona), whose dad (Attilio Fabiano) is boss at the bank where Arturo’s dad (Rosario Lisma) works. A chance viewing of prime minister Giulio Andreotti on TV offers the boy an unlikely role model; those who thought Toni Servillo did a stellar job imitating Andreotti in “Il Divo” need to see young Bisconti’s side-splitting rendition. The gag is best understood by audiences aware of the politician’s frequently rumored ties to the Mafia, which Pif forthrightly pulls out of the closet.
These are the years when Toto Riina (Antonio Alveario) waged a bloody war for Mafia supremacy, regularly assassinating rival mobsters and anti-Mafia crusaders. It’s this Palermo of the 1970s and early ’80s that Pif captures so well, a city where denial goes hand-in-hand with stifled tolerance, and kind neighbors who are also examining magistrates are murdered in plain sight with barely a protest. Even the ironic title, “The Mafia Kills Only in the Summer” — said casually to young Arturo by his dad to ease his anxiety — speaks to the blithe acceptance most people felt toward the Cosa Nostra, captured so cleverly by the pic’s combination of jocularity and dead earnestness.
The script should have done more with Flora’s adult character, and there’s no excuse for the mincing effeminacy of Arturo’s TV presenter boss, Jean Pierre (Maurizio Marchetti). Luckily, these flaws are subsumed in the larger picture Pif draws, steadily building apprehension as the escalation of well-known murders — of people like Boris Giuliano and Gen. Dalla Chiesa — leads minds to the watershed assassinations of anti-Mafia magistrates Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone, whose brutal killings jolted most Sicilians out of their complacency.
With “Zelig”-like accuracy, Pif inserts characters into archival footage, expertly mimicking the look and texture of 1980s news reportage (lenser Roberto Forza used a Betacam to match the quality of those images). Cristiano Travaglioli’s expert editing binds it all together, deftly shifting between sometimes broad satire and hard-hitting emotion. Standout production design by Marcello Di Carlo re-creates wallpaper and color mismatches that could only have existed in the 1970s.