Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Girl vs. the Mafia: Amenta’s Sicilian Girl

Teen-aged girls are supposed to be moody and argue with their families, but seventeen year-old Rita Atria never had a chance for domestic happiness. After her uncle murdered her father to assume sole control of their mafia clan, a desire for revenge consumed her. Yet, in pursuit of vengeance, Atria became a unifying symbol of courage and justice for Sicilians, who now reverently honor her memory. While altering her name to Mancuso and simplifying the historical record somewhat, for dramatic and legal reasons, it is indeed Atria’s story Marco Amenta tells in the new mafia drama The Sicilian Girl (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Rita Mancuso is the apple of her father Don Michele’s eye, but even as a little girl, she bitterly clashed with her mother. As a result, when Don Michele is assassinated by her uncle Don Salvo Rimi, her family life becomes distinctly unpleasant. However, she has an ally in her brother Carmelo, an up-and-coming mafia soldier, who shares her desire for retribution, but counsels patience. Unfortunately, when Rimi also eliminates Carmelo, Mancuso loses all that remains of her family support system. With nothing left to lose, she does the unthinkable, approaching an anti-mafia magistrate based on the late Paolo Borsellino who is hailed as a hero across Italy for his organized crime prosecutions.

Girl is grand tragedy, but it is also a very direct and personal story of a young woman forced by circumstances to mature awfully quickly. Its themes of family, betrayal, sacrifice, and justice are quite universal and accessible. In fact, it sharply dispels any lingering notions of the mafia’s alleged family values. Indeed, the only figure in the film that seems to be honoring their familial commitments is the magistrate.

A tricky film to cast in Italy, Girl features a relative newcomer as Mancuso and a veteran French actor as the magistrate. In a star-making turn, Veronica D’Agostino is riveting as Mancuso, perfectly balancing her gritty toughness and the tender vulnerability of her age and circumstances. Yet, it is Gérard Jugnot who really provides the film’s heart and conscience. His understated performance presents the magistrate not as a crusader or a prospective hero, but an honest workaday public servant, trying to do his job.

In a way, Girl is a refreshingly old-fashioned film, presenting fact-based drama without intellectual gamesmanship or irony. Still, Amenta realistically grounds the film in its Sicilian setting, shooting on location in Palermo and Palazzo Adriano (though he found it advisable to avoid Atria’s village of Partanna, for obvious reasons). He even drew a number of supporting cast members from the Sicilian shadow world, including at least one member reportedly considering a career with the mafia.

Atria/Mancuso’s story is sad and infuriating, yet ultimately heroic. Far more emotionally engaging than Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, the sensitive Girl is one of the most satisfying organized crime films to be released in years. It opens this Wednesday (8/4) in New York at Film Forum.