Monday, December 17, 2007

The Hundred Steps

The Hundred Steps is a historical film, depicting the life of Peppino Impastato, outspoken activist against the Mafia. The film is a terrific look into a significant time period in the history of Italy.

Researching Italian history, I am amazed to find how deeply the idea of communism is rooted in Italy. For a country so slow to industrialize, Italy has taken vast steps towards the left. It began with the Partito Socialista Italiano, PSI, or Italian Socialist Party in 1892. This party at its height was 860 thousand members strong in 1946, according to Wikipedia. This party eventually split into two separate groups: the reformists- who were strong in parliament, and the maximalists- led by Mussolini. Soon the Maximalist group overcame the reformists and ousted them from the party. Developed through leftist views came the Partito Comunista Italiano, PCI, or Italian Communist party, a group that reached higher prevalence than the socialist group with over 2 million members in 1947. The group was once led by Antonio Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci as they increased the rift between their party and the socialists.

The Red Brigades was a terrorist group active during the “Years of Lead” or highly turbulent time of political instability. There were many politically-motivated murders, one being the killing of Aldo Moro, who was assassinated during this time. Moro, a Christian Democrat, was trying to make compromises with the Communist party, led by Enrico Berlinguer, an agreement known as the compromesso storico, or historic compromise. In an extremist response, the Red Brigades kidnapped Moro and after 54 days of captivity, assassinated him. The terrorist group left the body in the trunk of the car half way between the Christian Democratic office and Communist offices in a symbolic gesture. Today there are also many different conspiracy theories concerning the death of Moro.

The actions of the Red Brigade show some significant resemblance to the FLQ, or Front de libération du Québec (Quebec Liberation Front). The FLQ was another terrorist group that used extreme means instead of peaceful endeavors. Like the Red Brigades, the FLQ was comprised of Marxist followers who wanted to declare war on their Anglophone oppressors, overthrow Quebec government, and separate from Canada. The group was active from the years 1963-1970, and was responsible for over 200 bombings and the death of five people. Two separate FLQ cells kidnapped two political figures, one after the other. First it was English-speaking James Cross, British Trade Commissioner, and than Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s own Minister of Labour. Laporte was soon killed (some reports suggest it was an accident). In order for Cross to be released they made several demands, including transportation to Cuba. Some of them were met and after two months, and Cross was finally let go. This period was known as the October Crisis.

This terror organization seemed to operate much like the Red Brigades, or least performed some acts that are closely similar. These actions took place less than a decade before, and proved to be successful on some account. The actions of this group could have likely inspired the Red Brigade’s kidnapping of Aldo Moro.


Color. The mise-en-scene in the film is very detailed. The use of the color red is abundant throughout the movie. For instance in the scene where the young Peppino is at his Uncle’s funeral, his small frame is surrounded (?) by an extravagant red thrown like chaird looking like the king of Communism (if there could be one). Also in the scene after his father first learns of his dealings with Communism, there is a red light covering him while he is lying on the bed, showing that this ideal of Communism was soon to encompass his life.

Music. There was also a significant amount of American music used in the film. In fact in scenes that show Peppino in progress, mostly have an American soundtrack in the background. I found this extremely peculiar, since for most American, the ideal of communism is taboo. II Iasldkfjfjdkls;a jlkewr Although the soundtrack featured artists synonymous with the anti-war, leftist view, like Janis Joplin and Lenard Cohen. I was also surprised to see how the hippie culture was vastly apparent in Italy during that time.

The story is one that is bittersweet. The reality of it even seems to contain dramatic, narrative elements. The way in which Peppino was killed mirrored the same way that his Uncle, whom he had a positive relationship with, was killed. There is also the probability they along with Peppino’s father were set up to be killed by the same person, Don Tano. Tano, who lived just one hundred steps away, was an interesting figure. In the 80’s he came to the U.S. and sold drugs out of pizza parlor. He was convicted in 1987 for drug trafficking and then later in 2002, was convicted of the death of Peppino Impastato. Tano died in prison. His drug empire was estimated at $1.65 billion.

A complex version of Tano exists in the film. In the scene where he visits Peppino at the coffee house we see a side to Tano that we have not previously encountered. You see the struggle inside of Peppino as Tano explains what he has done for his family. In a sense, Tano helping Peppino’s father, actually helped Peppino become what he was. Peppino’s family wasn’t suffering from financial peril and this allowed him and his brother to attend school. Is the scene in the pizza parlor a dream sequence, or did Tano really offer an escape path to Peppino?

It is very ironic that the Impastato business was a pizza parlor, which was also the means that Tano used to sell drugs in the states.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


"While he has not made a documentary, his film reflects a heightened sense of reality derived from the experience of life." --- Rob Edelman

“L’america” was directed by Gianni Amelio (the man responsible for a film we watched earlier in the semester, “The Keys to the House”) and released in 1994. What is unique about this film is that it brings traditional linear Italian film-making to new places by using the methods of neo-realism to carry the audience along on a dreamlike, ironic mythologizing journey whose mood and methods are all his own. This extremely powerful film, almost documentary-like in its presentation of its characters and themes, is as fantastic as it is vividly concrete and sad.

The film tells the story of two Italians, Fiore (Michele Placido) and his assistant Gino (Enrico Lo Verso) who go to the impoverished, wrecked post-communist Albania with the scam of setting up a shell shoe factory as what they - or Fiore, for the most part, because he by himself is the mastermind of the scam - think will be a profitable tax shelter. They corrupt an Albanian official named Kruja, which they turn into Croce (cross) to grease the bureaucratic wheels and obtain government approval for the plan. Unsatisfied with others who have cooperating families who are able to make claims, they find Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), an old man they are told is an orphan and has been imprisoned by the communists for fifty years. They sign him up as the Albanian figurehead "president" of the company. Fiore hurries back to Italy and leaves Gino in charge of watching over the derelict factory they have taken control of, and also to make sure Spiro stays out of trouble.

When Fiore leaves however, things go wrong, and as the story progresses, they get even worse, until Gino has lost everything - even his Italian identity. The journey we as the viewers go on is compulsive watching and echoes tragic wanderings like those of the father and son in De Sica's “The Bicycle Thief”, or the couple in Fellini's “La Strada.” Amelio achieves a sense of understanding and a sorrow and pity that a person can have only when everything has been stripped away from them and nothing but their essential humanity remains. Basically, you have to imagine the worst thing that could happen to you while on a journey, and then take that even further, and you have an idea of the trajectory and transformative emotional power of “L’america.”

When Gino finally gets ahold of Fiore on the phone, he learns that their scam has failed, and they are not only in deep trouble, but he and Spiro are both out of a job. Of course, Spiro says he knew this would happen all along. The Spiro character is extremely pivotal in the film. At first he appears as a derelict, worse than a bum, clearly out of his mind. When asked his age he holds up his fingers twice, and the viewer realizes he still thinks he’s twenty years old. But somehow there is a young man still inside Spiro that seems to emerge as the film goes along as a figure of great humanity, energy and hope.

The first disaster occurs when Spiro disappears from the nuns' institution where they have left him. After being a prisoner for fifty years, all he wants to do now is escape. Gino finds him and takes him on a journey along the coast in a jeep, but once they're out in the middle of nowhere, Gino is lost. He runs around frantically looking for Spiro, and when he gets back to the car, it has been stripped of its tires. He calls for the police, but since he only speaks Italian, no one can understand him. They can only stare at him. These faces Amelio shows us, and again at the end, in that powerful closing montage on the boat heading for Italy at long last, communicate more with these pained and tired expressions than any words ever could.

Much like the great Italian neo-realist filmmakers of the forties and fifties, Amelio uses real places and real people with great skill. What does all this mean? First of all, it's an affirmation of the sheer and inexplicable power of poverty. The fact that Spiro's insanity comes across as beautiful and hopeful shows that the film is not to be taken too literally. The film shows us a lot about Albania, colonialism, rich and poor nations and economic exploitation, yet at its core it is truly a film of heart-wrenching sadness. When we see those faces in the closing scene, the pain felt by these people is truly individualized, showing us the viewers that the problems highlighted not only in this film but in other issues plaguing the world today can be seen in one agonizing stare.

“L’america” is a breathtaking film, and clearly sets Amelio apart as one of the most powerful and humanistic Italian filmmakers working today.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I Cento Passi

I Cento Passi

“I want to give up politics and life” – Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato

This was the sentence that allowed the city officials in Cinisi to pass off Peppino’s death as a suicide. In reality the mafia dealt him out a fate he and his supporters probably could have seen coming, considering he spent the most important years of his life mocking them and their ill power.
The film I Cento Passi directed by Marco Tullio Giordana serves to recount the tale of Peppino’s life from his childhood to his unfortunate death and even beyond, to show his numerous supporters. This fast-paced film brings out Peppino as a people’s hero, sacrificing his safety and eventually his life to expose the government and mafia for what they really are. Peppino’s views on how the government should function and his radical ideas of Socialism thread through the film a story of a countercultural struggle against the people who have the power and refuse to give it up.
The opening of this ‘anti-mafia’ film is oddly similar to most mafia films that glorify the mafia code. The slow pacing and long shots certainly intensify the tension of the film. It takes young Peppino to a celebration where he becomes attached to his uncle Cesare Manzella, and also seems to be a young predecessor that might carry on the family’s name. We are introduced to Tano, who is the antagonist to not only this film, but also Peppino’s true life, when Peppino almost runs him over while trying to learn how to drive. Just like most mafia films the villain is introduced early and now all the audience is waiting for is someone to get whacked. It comes when Cesare is blown up in a car bomb, something that the audience can see from a mile away.
The oddest thing about this set of events is that in essence, they are all true. All of the events have probably been embellished a little, just to dramatically heighten the action, but all of the family relationships existed; Tano blew up Peppino’s uncle Cesare in the tragic car bomb fashion; and after Cesare’s death pieces of his body were found clinging in lemon trees meters away from where the explosion occurred.
After Cesare’s funeral the film takes a change of course and turns from looking like a mafia film into an anti-mafia film. The foreshadowing begins when young Peppino is sitting in a deep red chair at the funeral, away from the rest of his family. He is observing the rituals of the mafia and looking very critical of their actions. Subsequently the editing quickens its pace, showing us action and reaction shots that relay information as fast as the audience can process it. After the funeral Peppino visits the artist Stefano whom he heard speaking in public days before and asks him to paint a portrait of his late uncle Cesare. Stefano refuses and instead tells Peppino a story and a poem that will alter Peppino’s life forever. With the foreshadowing of red drapes flowing behind young Peppino, the film then thrusts us years later when Peppino is actively protesting with his Socialist group. The group is storming the police and a throwing themselves in front of a group of bulldozers that are trying to develop the land. The two lifestyles are juxtaposed wonderfully to start a parallel of politics between the two factions of the counterculture and the power holders.
The development of the mafia and mob bosses has probably existed a long time, and has been a group that has focused on the importance of deep politics. Sadly, the passive-aggressive way in which the mafia seems to get things done is by committing criminal acts such as murder in order to get what they want. In the opening scenes of I Cento Passi, there are many references to the changing times in Italy. A group of kids joke around when they are near a car asking where the horses went, and when the Socialist Stefano is speaking out against the dangers of the mafia, Cesare tells him the new wave of politics in Italy is a democracy, and people are getting more jobs and making ends meet. There irony in this statement because while technology is advancing, the common people are not experiencing any relief from the suffering. The economic miracle is simply only giving more food and power to the mafia. Certainly, the mafia would look forward to a capitalist society because in all ways that is how a mafia functions. They are very much a pro-bureaucracy group, with one person functioning as the head and many individual levels of bosses below that. It is this fundamentalism that helps fuel the mafia’s distaste for Communist believers. Politically these groups are far left, and far right, and the state of the society surrounding Peppino is clearly far right. At one point Peppino’s own father says he will kill him if he is truly a communist. Marxist followers focus on the rise of the lower class and the dissolving of classes that hold power in society. This power will fall into the hands of the people and an eternal utopia will form.
Peppino’s course of action through the film is to try and inform people using a deep mixture of media and culture. Italy is famous for its contributions to art and literature, and both will become devices which Peppino can use to deliver his message. When Peppino founds the radio station Radio Aut, he begins to broadcast daily messages to the people, poking fun at the mafia and similar institutions. This young, fast-paced generation seems to try and do anything to capture the attention of the people to inform them of the corrupt ways that need to change. The soundtrack to this Italian film that accompanies the radio station and Peppino as he travels around Cinisi is primarily an English one that has a lot of American counterculture rock bands. The sounds of Janice Joplin and Leonard Cohen help provide an atmospheric background to Peppino’s political crusade.
When his lack of fear for the mafia finally thrusts Peppino into the position where he believes he has enough supporters to start an actual political campaign, the tide turns for him. In the Sicilian town Peppino consults Stefano to get his input on the idea of him running for office under the Socialist Democratic party, and once he has announced he is going to run, the mafia steps in. They handle Peppino much like they are expected to, only in a much more gruesome manner. The kill Peppino and blow his body up so that there is no trace of him left.
The fact that the officials would try and hide his death as a suicide proves despite the adoration and agreement Peppino’s supporters had for him, it did not equate to years of power the mafia held. It is appalling that the government has kept the case closed on Peppino, and waited twenty years to take action against Peppino’s killers.
Considering the current political climate, this film is a very potent one. It is important for citizens, especially in a democracy, to know what is going on in the government. While Peppino’s ideas of government may not be a completely achievable goal, the freedoms he spoke out for, especially freedom of speech, are important to society. Had this film not documented Peppino’s account, many people would not know the lengths to which one man went to fight for what he believed, and I am curious to know what Peppino’s thoughts on the current state of the world’s politics would be had he not been brutally murdered thirty years ago.


Ruberto, Laura E. and Kristi M. Wilson, eds. Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema.
Detroit. Wayne State University Press, 2007.