Dir: Andrea Porporati Italy 2007. 99 mins.
The Italian Mafia film comes of age with The Sweet and the Bitter, a Sicilian Goodfellas that offers a refreshingly unheroic, sometimes darkly comic take on the grubby reality behind the rituals and myths of Cosa Nostra. Like another recent title, Stefano Incerti's L'Uomo di Vetro, the film explores the Mafia from the inside, through the story of a young and intitally enthusiastic footsoldier of the local boss who becomes increasingly disaffected by Family life.

The script's rambling, disjointed, scenes-from-a-life structure (think Donnie Brasco) suits the material well, as does its refusal to be too solemn about its subject. And fans of recent Italian cinema will enjoy seeing the ever-watchable Luigi Lo Cascio in a mafioso role that at first seems diametrically opposed to the anti-Mafia hothead he played in The Hundred Steps - but in fact has a common Sicilian-rebel-without-a-cause root.

The Sweet and the Bitter opened with a decent fourth place at the Italian box office - not bad considering that over the years local punters have developed an inbuilt resistance to Mafia films. It should hold up for a few weeks as word of mouth spreads, and may well chalk up a few foreign sales.

Festival programmers should also have a look at what was the strongest of the three Italian competition entries at Venice this year (it's baffling that it was the weak and much-derided L'Ora di Punta that secured a Toronto berth, rather than this).

Lo Cascio plays Rosario (a.k.a. Saro) Scordia, the son of a mafioso who died leading a prison riot. Groomed by the local boss, Gaetano Butera (Tony Gambino), Saro earns respect by doing time in prison without squealing, and on his release he is given more responsibility. In one scene that begins hard-bolied but turns absolutely hilarious, he takes part in a bank heist in northern Italy that is plagued by communication problems when the terrified bank teller doesn't understand the Sicilian dialect spoken by the gang leader.

Later, he scores his first killing, and is formally inducted into Cosa Nostra: but it's here that everything begins to unravel. Ironically, Saro's growing disgust with the Mafia has less to do with moral qualms than with his realisation that getting ahead in the organisation is not based on merit; instead, it's all about who you are and who's looking after you. He's like a keen young priest disillusioned by murky church politics.

Sub-plots centre on Ada (Donatella Finocchiaro), Saro's girlfriend, who rejects him when she sees that he has been sucked into Cosa Nostra (she's like Kay from The Godfather, only with a little more willpower); and another of Ada's suitors, Stefano (Fabrizio Gifuni), who becomes an anti-Mafia magistrate.

The story moves along at a cracking pace, its knowing, faintly cynical attitude underscored by an edgy, see-saw xylophone-led soundtrack. The same uneasy rhythm is there in the editing and the lighting, which alternates day scenes illuminated by a hard, unforgiving Sicilian sun with claustrophobic interiors bathed in sickly artificial light. The risk of a hard-nosed, humour-laced Mafia film like this is that there's not much of the old 'hero's journey' payback at the end: but wry, knowing smiles are sometimes more honest than tragic catharsis.

Andrea Porporati

Production companies
Sciarlo (It)
Medusa Film (It)

International sales
Adriana Chiesa Enterprises (It)

Francesco Tornatore

Andrea Porporati
Annio Gioacchino Stasi

Alessandro Pesci

Production design
Beatrice Scarpato

Simona Paggi

Ezio Bosso

Main cast
Luigi Lo Cascio
Donatella Finocchiaro
Tony Gambino
Renato Carpentieri
Gaetano Bruno
Fabrizio Gifuni