There was a Simpson episode where Burns, said that his medical treatment made him "as powerless as a Nevada boxing commissioner". In French, it was translated to "a judge in Sicily" and the image couldn't have been more evocative.
Indeed, powerlessness despite power, this could be the subtitle Giuseppe Ferrara's gripping "100 Days in Palermo", a film as depressing as it is important. It is depressing because it leaves with you a hopeless sensation, one that there's for once, a force of evil that can't be beaten in its territory: Mafia in Sicily. That feudal system, inherited from times of invasions, but meaningless in post-war modernity and democracy, had time to root its deep ramifications into state matters, so you couldn't possibly know where law ended and Mafia began.
But you could recognize the men who kept on the right side from the blood they shed. And I still have vivid memories of the impact the movie's opening left on me when I saw it at 8 for the first time. There were more deaths and brutal killing in the first 15 minutes than I ever saw in films. I couldn't go on and left the room. But 25 years later, after several viewings, I reckon there are too many deaths, in fact, too many bullets for each death, one two, sometimes three machine guns for one man, not the slightest hope of survival is permitted. And all it takes is to be a judge, a civil servant, a representative, in fact any assignation in Sicily is like a death warrant.
And the man who signs his, is General Carlo Della Chiesa (Lino Ventura), prefect of Sicily for 100 days. The film doesn't leave any mystery, if you don't know from the facts, you guess from the title. Making himself an enemy of the Mafia, there won't be more reasons to spare Della Chiesa than all his ill-fated predecessors, including the Community Deputy Pio La Torre (Lino Troisi) who successfully launched one of the first anti-conspiracy Laws, directly targeting the Mafia in the Sicilian context and was killed in an ambush, along with his driver, as an act of 'vengeance'. I wouldn't call it vendetta because there's no honor in these acts, only terror.
And terror is the reason why even a Communist Deputy would ask the help of military leader. Della Chiese, who had just triumphed over the terrorism in the 70's, and was about to enjoy a much deserved retirement, was obviously –and unfortunately for him- the man of the situation: authoritarian, rational and efficient. At a toast with his men, tension and sadness are palpable, one of the youngest officers dares a "stay with us", the strong-headed General is baffled by such displays of childishness and takes it with humor. He's a man of duty and the perspective of declining a mission is unconceivable, especially when the one who called him, has been killed.
This is a dying breed of men indeed, and a tailor-made role for the great Lino Ventura who naturally oozed authority, plays one of his last great performances to perfection, all in nuance and cold realism, the same realism that makes the film a remarkable police procedural and bureaucratic struggles. And as a natural born leader with an intuitive cognition of the waters he must swim around to achieve his goals. And he knows damn well that money is the sinew of the war and he won't defeat Mafia without weakening their allies: bankers and businessmen. Indeed, the danger don't come from motorbikes and Kalashnikovs, but cigars and suitcases.
Eager to give his crusade a good level of publicity, Della Chiesa eloquently tells a young audience that it's more difficult to fight Mafia than terrorism, because some people live from mafia, and its influence exceeds the limits of Sicily, it's a holistic evil system that transcend class barriers and to fight it is to fight people's fears as well. Does he fear for himself, he's asked? His answer is that he only tries to limit it to himself. And in another conference in front of blue-collar workers, he denies any revolutionary motive as he only tries to fix a situation, one of them asks, with eyes that say "who's being naive?" "and that's not a revolution?"
Even the decent, honest, and well-meaning general won't be able to reform a system built over years of submission, Omerta and the sums of people's fears, and this was only 10 years before Falcone and Borsellino, the judge and the chief of Police, would swell the ranks of Mafia martyrs. Della Chiesa would die 100 days after his tenure, assassinated in the same implacable and savage way with his newly wed wife Emmaniella (Guiliana de Sio), thirty years younger. In a sort of artistic license, Emmanuella could foresee from the newspapers' headlines and the ellipsis after the body count (and not before) that the countdown wasn't over.
"100 Days in Palermo" or the chronicles of a doomed to fail mission, why even make such a film? Because what a man does at his own life's expense is worth a legacy. And the 100 Days spent in Palermo are just as significant as if they had succeeded. And this is why, as depressing as it is, it is also indispensable. Speaking for myself, my favorite movie is "The Godfather" and all these years on IMDb, I've always defended the film against those who accused it was glamorizing or romanticizing gangsters, criminals. The truth is that a movie "100 Days in Palermo" put things in a new perspective.
I know movies like "Godfather" or "Goodfellas" insist that no policeman or civilian can be killed. But we know too well the mob ties with Sicily, where the matters are pretty different there. So ironically, paraphrasing a famous quote, I'd say that a mafia movies hater should keep close to the film, but even closer, a Mafia movie-fan.
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