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It's a pity that some of the best, and most timely, documentaries about the Sicilian Mafia never make their way into English. This one should have. The Mafia is White ("La Mafia è Bianca"), available from Bur Books, is one of the better documentaries of this kind. Under the sponsorship of Michele Santoro, one of Italy's most distinguished journalists, it is the work of Stefano Bianchi and Alberto Nerazzini, who take us on an investigative odyssey through the corrupt world of public financing of private clinics operated by Mafiosi physicians loosely overseen by the infamous fugitive - and Mafia kingpin - Bernardo Provenzano (who has since been captured). But this journey transcends a few localized scandals. Several members of the regional government, including the corpulent "governor" of Sicily, are under investigation (the DVD was released late in 2005). Organized crime has always flourished, but now it's a "cleaner" phenomenon, with less killing. It would be opportune to mention some of the people under investigation - many already convicted - but few readers outside Sicily would recognize their names. Still, the audacity of some of them, especially the politicians, is amazing. We are even shown a clip from the Maurizio Costanzo Show where the "governor" loudly challenges the efforts of the late Giovanni Falcone, the gutsy judge who was murdered by the Mafia.
Like the Sicilian phrase "lupara bianca," white here refers not only to cleanliness but to the invisible.
Is the Mafia really very white? Clearly, not everybody is deceived by the rhetoric of a few vocal politicos who themselves are implicated. Particularly disturbing is the number of physicians-turned-politicians involved in stealing large sums from the government. Here the entire mechanism is exposed. Private clinics are financed with state money while public hospitals languish in squalor. Reporters receive evasive, cynical responses from the bureaucrats they interview - doctors, administrators and (in an "extra" interview) a Roman Catholic priest. They explain how two police officers tipped off prominent Mafiosi about wire taps, and how a surgeon was actually the Mafia boss of part of Palermo. And it's all supported by court records. We're taken inside open court for parts of several trials.
Why healthcare, of all things? Why doesn't this newly evolved form of the Mafia get money from protection rackets (the pizzo), narcotics sales, public "development" projects, public construction contract kickbacks, bribes and other traditional sources? It does. Those activities still exist as mainstays of Mafia revenue. But almost fifty percent of Rome's funds for Sicily are earmarked for some form of healthcare, making it a lucrative business. The Lombardy (Milan) region, Italy's most populous, has only around sixty private clinics directly subsidized by the state; Sicily has over a thousand. One such clinic, in Bagheria (just outside Palermo), belonged to a man who, a few years ago, was officially the wealthiest man in Sicily. In Italy tax evasion is a way of life, but income declarations are difficult to falsify when most of one's income is being paid directly by the Italian government.
Nepotism? Clientilism? Corruption? Nothing new here, but we could be forgiven our hopes for gradual, evolutionary change. This film shows us that only the names have changed. Few of the people under investigation are even over fifty, though most are surprisingly rude, unrefined, ugly and unkempt. In the event, considering their patronage of the kind of private clinics that pay kickbacks, one doubts that any of these gentlemen will ever see the inside of Palermo's infamous Villa Sofia Hospital visited by Nerazzini and Bianchi. (Having seen it myself, I can assure readers that it's every bit as horrible as the journalists depict it.) The point here is that almost all of the state medical services in Sicily have been entrusted to private interests, but at taxpayer expense, while the public hospitals go to Hell.
Until recently, it was perfectly legal in Italy for a public hospital administrator (appointed by corrupt politicians) to maintain his own publicly-funded private clinic, and many did. Corruption and conflicts of interest are normal here. Even today, in 2006, banks, universities and the post office actually have (legal) policies which permit employees' children to inherit their jobs! (When local newspapers published articles on the subject in January 2006 few Sicilians were even scandalized.)
The bizarre mix of politics and organized crime transcend what is depicted in this documentary. In the last few years, close relatives of prominent Mafia victims (prefect Carlo dalla Chiesa and judge Paolo Borsellino, both killed by the Mafia) have refused to participate in events commemorating them because these were sponsored by politicians and officials under investigation for Mafia activity.
Dual healthcare systems? Private clinics for the rich and public hospitals for the poor? The same kind of system is evolving in many countries, but should public hospital administrators be appointed by Mafiosi? Should public tax money fund private clinics that poor taxpayers cannot afford? Good questions.
Parts of this documentary would be comical were they not so sad. In Bagheria an unemployed man states without intentional irony that the Mafia should be welcome because it does more than the state or legitimate private sector to "help" common people such as himself. Others explain how clientilism and "patronage" (preferments or recommendations) are necessary to achieve much of anything in the difficult Sicilian economy. Ironically, they're probably right. It is in the hope of obtaining such largesse that voters elect candidates they know to be dishonest, and Sicily's electorate is full of semi-educated people whose formal education ended at the age of fourteen. As though feudalism were never abolished, influential administrators of hospitals and universities are called baroni (barons).
The extent of this corruption is nothing if not profound. Very few people living outside Sicily can imagine that almost any profession or position here requires some kind of bribe or payoff. If you need a permit to open a restaurant or store, or if you're applying for a job, there's at least a sixty-percent probability that you will have to pay somebody or perform some kind of favor - if not for the Mafia itself then for somebody who is politically well-connected, somebody in a position to give you what you want. Somebody who has what you need. The Giornale di Sicilia, a local newspaper, has reported that in Palermo some 60% of stores and other businesses pay the pizzo (payoff money). While few women will admit it openly, a surprising number have performed sexual favors in exchange for employment for which they were probably already well-qualified professionally. That this is all accepted as a normal part of life in Sicily partly explains why it's so difficult to defeat the widespread Mafia mentality. The current crop of politicians is center-right politically, but a few years ago, when those in power were center-left, the situation was nearly as bad. This story really isn't about party politics per se; it just so happens that in Sicily the Right is slightly more corrupt than the Left.
Is there hope for Sicily? On the surface, this documentary doesn't give us much cause for optimism, but at least the judiciary is hard at work, and that is a good sign. In times past the most corrupt of Sicilians were rarely even accused, let alone brought to trial, and in the wake of the "maxi-trial" of the 1980s few Mafiosi remained in prison for very long. The elusive Provenzano was finally found and arrested (even the American magazines Time and Newsweek did stories on his capture), and perhaps this modern-day Mafia don deserves - however grudgingly - more respect than his associates. For decades, the crafty Provenzano had managed to evade investigation and capture. One of the most astounding things about La Mafia è Bianca is the ease with which the interviewees, suspects and their cronies attack the press, as though there were a sinister "conspiracy" to destroy the Mafia. But it's equally amazing how readily these unrepentent characters stole millions of euros from the Italian people, and might have just got away with their schemes were it not for the efforts of a few intrepid investigators and prosecutors. Well, in a sense they did get away with it. Unfortunately, Italy's high juridical burden of proof is often an obstacle to successful prosecution.
In 2005, two tall marble monuments were erected along the autostrada near Capaci to mark the place where the intrepid Judge Falcone's motorcade was exploded over a decade ago. Difficult to overlook, the twin monoliths seem intended to remind visitors arriving from the airport that the war against the Mafia has not ended. The airport itself was named "Falcone-Borsellino" in memory of these two judges. The "new" Mafia may be white, but its long shadow is as dark and sinister as ever.
About the Author: Michele Parisi has written about film and cinematic topics.