Film/Television Review: Falcone (Excellent Cadavers, 1999)


Dysfunctionality of the First Italian Republic was probably the most visible in Sicily, the island where the state traditionally played the second fiddle to Mafia. Such state of affairs, which, among other things, inspired plenty of Italian film makers, began to change only in 1980s when the forces of law and order began to strike first serious blows against until that time untouchable mafiosi. Person most associated with that process is the subject of Falcone (also known as Excellent Cadavers), 1999 biopic directed by Ricky Tognazzi and originally aired on HBO.

The film is based on Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, 1995 book by American journalist Alexander Stille. The protagonist, played by Chazz Palminteri, is Giovanni Falcone, prosecutor based in Palermo. The plot chronicles his efforts to investigate and prosecute member of Mafia who were at the time untouchable, partly due to widespread corruption and links with the most prominent politicians in Rome. Another source of Mafia’s uncontested power is the lucrative heroin trade which, on the other hand, causes vicious war between rival Mafia factions. The war goes in favour of Salavatore “Toto” Riina (played by Victor Cavallo), extremely brutal boss whose strategy for domination consists of murdering even categories of people that Mafia traditionally spared – women and children, as well prominent politicians, law enforcement officials and magistrates, known as “excellent cadavers” by locals. Falcone, despite his own life being in danger, meticulously builds case against Riina and his allies by investigating money trail and close cooperation with law enforcement officials in other countries. He also gains important ally in the form of Tomasso Buscetta (played by F. Murray Abracham), mafia boss who is so disgusted by Riina’s atrocities that he breaks “omerta”, centuries-old code of silence, and becomes first prominent member of Sicilian mafia who would agree to co-operate with government prosecutors. Partly thanks to that, Falcone is able to bring hundreds of top Mafia members to spectacular trial that would result in long prison sentences, representing the most serious setback for Mafia in decades. Riina is, however, convinced that his crumbling authority over the island can be restored through another demonstration of raw power, so Falcone from that point onward lives on borrowed time.

Directed by Ricky Tognazzi, son of prominent Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi, Falcone isn’t the first film dedicated to the figure many Italians view as one of the nations’s greatest heroes and martyrs. In 1993 Italian film Giovanni Falcone lead character was played by Michele Placido. This HBO production, on the other hand, had lead character played by American actor Chazz Palminteri. Despite Palminteri being a fine actor, his mere presence in many ways makes Falcone too Hollywood-like. Same can be said of F. Murray Abracham, character actor specialised in role of villains, here playing Buscetta, character whose motives for his historic act of turning on Mafia are matter of decades-long debate. Those two performances, however, are quite adequate although Palminteri and Abracham stand out among all-Italian cast. The biggest problem in Falcone is, however, the script by Peter Pruce that tries to cover years of momentous events in relatively short time. Such efforts don’t bear much fruit and the Mafia rule over the island is depicted through scenes of assassination and bloodshed that quickly turn monotonous. The film, on the other hand, fails to show how Falcone managed to strike a blow against Mafia through pedantic investigation and thinking outside the box. Subplot involving Buscetta’s dramatic revelations makes more sense for those wanting entertainment, but even that isn’t enough. Falcone, like so many American television biopics, try to show “human” side of protagonist, so great deal of film is dedicated to romance and marriage to lawyer Francesca Morvillo (played by Anna Galienna). The worst thing about Falcone, at least to those who are somewhat familiar with the subject, is scriptwriter’s failure to name names or give broader political context of events portrayed in the film. That includes figure of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, highly divisive and controversial figure widely speculated as being in cahoots in Mafia and who actually on trial during the release of the film. Failure to address those issue make Falcone not the worth much of attention, at least for viewers who would be better served by numerous Italian films and television series dedicated to the subject, as well as documentaries like Excellent Cadavers, 2005 film directed by Marco Turco, also based on Stille’s book.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

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