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This is no conventional confessional. From the movie's beginning, the protagonist admits her fascination with the Mafia boys of her neighborhood, Palermo's gritty Ballarò: "I already understood everything. I loved the world of criminals. They were like heroes to me." It almost seems like the Sicilian version of Henry Hill's opening narrative in Goodfellas. "All my life I wanted to be a gangster." Powerful language that many people would find at least slightly unsettling. Like Goodfellas, this motion picture, filmed in Palermo, deals with the working class soldiers of the organisation usually referred to as the Mafia. Instead of English, they speak rugged Sicilian and imperfect Italian, but many of the underlying themes are the same. Nowadays, when the upper ranks of the Mafia prefer to deal with the purchase of bankers and politicians in matters like construction contracts, misappropriation of funds and large-scale money laundering, leaving the street to lower-level associates, a discussion of drug dealers and petty racket operators seems almost an anachronism. But this is Angela's world, and it's no fantasy. The plot of Angela - A True Story is based on the real-life experiences of a real Palermitan woman.
Is poverty the only social force that spawns crime? Certainly not for Angela, but "Mafia Princess" would not be a term suited to her tiny world. Angela breaks with her family and the chance of an honest --if humble-- job to marry, at the age of twenty, Saro, a local delinquent several years her senior. Together they embark on a career of cocaine dealing, feeding the needs of "Palermo Bene," as the city's affluent, "respectable" professional classes are known. Saro is a pawn, not a "made" Mafioso. Using a shoe store as a cover, Angela and Saro launder money and embark on their idea of the good life. This lifestyle seems crazy enough, but Angela's real trouble begins when she meets Masino, who becomes her husband's right hand man --and Angela's lover. And so we embark on another typically Sicilian theme, marital infidelity. Roberta Torre doesn't pull any punches with her audiences. That wouldn't be her style. Anybody who entertains dreamlike fantasies about Sicilians or Sicilian life should not see this movie!
Donatella Finocchiaro's portrayal of Angela is flawless. Mario Pupella is perfect as Saro, while Andrea Di Stefano's Masino is more than credible. The location settings are as real as real could ever be. Except for her cheating, and the obvious moral issues involved in selling cocaine and extorting the pizzo (protection money), Angela seems like the perfect wife and business partner. She manages the cocaine business with the same attention to customer service she brings to managing the shoe store. In another reality, she might have been a competent businesswoman. But this isn't American suburbia, and the Mafia isn't a Fortune 500 corporation --at least not officially. Nevertheless, this is the story of a real Sicilian woman, even if she does not, can not, represent all Sicilian women.
She's not a victim. Unlike Giuseppe Tornatore's Malena, about a woman persecuted in rural wartime Sicily, Angela is the product of her own stupidity, in a modern urban society. Well, almost "modern." Palermo is routinely cited as unique among European cities for the state of decay of its historical districts and its disastrous economy. It's a truthful, if sad, observation. How many potential (or aspiring) Angelas are born here every day?
This is not Roberta Torre's first foray into a Palermitan subculture. South Side Story dealt with life in Palermo's African immigrant community, while Tano da Morire presented the Mafia as a parody of itself. Both were musicals, almost comical in tone, though they used real people, rather than professional actors, for many parts. (Torre is not unique in this; Giuseppe Tornatore does the same thing.) Angela, instead, is a hard hitting drama, almost a documentary. It's really not a "Mafia movie" in the sense that many critics use that phrase. Nor is it very good public relations for Palermo, whose mayor, a lawyer by profession, goes to New York to assure Italo-Americans that the Mafia exists no more. No, this isn't the Palermo your travel agent told you about. It's a real city, complete with the kind of problems that nobody wants to admit are rooted in Sicilian society itself. A few years ago, Ballarò, Angela's neighborhood, made national headlines because of a child molesting scandal. Nobody knows what really took place, but it was alleged that a few mothers were prostituting their nine year-old daughters to earn enough to eat. Palermo's well-paid politicians don't seem to have that problem.
Against this backdrop, the Mafia is little more than a footnote, less cause than effect. In Angela's world, it just so happens that street crime is organised crime. Palermo has no monopoly on the drug trade any more than New York, Paris or Moscow ever could. If the Mafia didn't control it, somebody else probably would. The irony is that, despite its own homegrown criminality, in the guise of characters like Saro and Masino, Palermo is far safer than these other cities. The murder rate is actually quite low.
This cinematic depiction of one Sicilian woman's experience is truth as high art. No public relations campaign can alter this particular brand of reality. If Angela is the kind of movie that certain people don't want you to see, that's probably one more good reason to see it. Produced by the Rita Rusic Company, Angela hasn't yet been released in English for the international market, though it has received good reviews at international film festivals. This raises another issue. Many of Italy's best motion pictures, and best music, rarely become known beyond Italian borders. An exception should be made for Angela.
About the Author: Michele Parisi, who presently resides in Rome, has written for various magazines and newspapers in Italy, France and the United Kingdom.