Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mafia Mash-up: To Die for Tano

Maybe it is the gaudy disco numbers or perhaps it is the papier-mâché death’s head, but it is hard to imagine a less likely award winner at the prestigious Venice Film Festival than Roberta Torre’s outrageous feature debut. Evidently, it was considered daring for an Italian film to give the mafia the Naked Gun treatment back in 1997 when To Die for Tano won directing honors at Venice, but now that it is finally poised to open theatrically in New York tomorrow, it seems rather bizarre.

It is hard to think of an unkind Italian stereotype Tano does not help perpetuate. The characters are mostly pear-shaped with big hair, open collars, and conspicuous gold chains. Yet, they cannot be accused of misrepresenting Palermo. Torre recruited her non-professional cast literally off the city’s streets, even identifying their real life occupations in the closing credits.

Tano Guarrasi is a small time Mafioso and baker who has just been gunned down as the film opens. Though presumed to be a victim of gang warfare, many people wanted Guarrasi dead, maybe including the spinster sister he kept tightly controlled under his thumb. We sort of get a picture of a man who was feared and hated from Enzo, Tano’s wiseguy “electrician” narrator, but character revelation is not what this film is about. Instead, Torre bombards viewers with images of homoerotic mafia rituals and Grand Guignol style musical numbers (sample clip here).

You should already know by now if you would enjoy Tano. Indeed, some would consider a midnight screening of the Italian send-up the perfect way to spend a Saturday night. To give Torre fair credit, she makes a virtue of her low budget necessities, creating a uniquely kitschy vibe. However, some mere mortals might find the dark lensing and garish colors physically difficult to watch. As for pedestrian concerns like plot and characterization, both are quite thin in Tano. Instead, Torre relies on broad strokes and stock characters to create her feverish mafia mock epic.

Tano’s cast of non-thespians at least look the part as Palermo’s gossips and gangsters. Amongst the odd cast, Enzo Paglino is probably the most successful, displaying an effective world-weary screen presence as the film’s narrator.

More than for what it splashes across the screen, Tano is probably of greater interest for what it represents: a rare Italian broadside against the Mafia from a woman director who has gone on to build an international reputation. If nothing else, it is a real spectacle, but a decidedly cheesy one. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Cinema Village.