Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 9, 2015

Black Souls

Filed under: crime,Film,Italy — louisproyect @ 8:59 pm

In American popular culture, the mafia gangster is either a tarnished hero like Don Corleone or a likeable lowlife like Tony Soprano. But for Italians, he is a much more malevolent figure especially as seen in a number of art films that are often infused with the leftist and neorealist traditions of the postwar period. More importantly, it is much harder for the average Italian to cheer for Michael Corleone taking revenge on a crooked cop and rival gang leader or Tony Soprano’s malapropisms when the mafia has functioned so often as a rightwing death squad.

In Paul Ginsborg’s Marxist-oriented “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988”, there’s an account of the mafia’s attack on a peasant protest in Villalba in central Sicily in September 1944. This was a village dominated by a mafia boss named Don Calò Vizzini, who had returned as part of the Allies entourage. Vizzini was among the gangsters who supposedly helped prepare the American invasion alongside Lucky Luciano and others.

The local CP leader, a man named Girolamo Li Causi, had asked for permission to hold a meeting in the village square. Vizzini granted permission but only if there was no talk about land reform or the mafia. Ginsborg quotes fellow Marxist Carlo Levi on what took place there:

Causi began to talk to that little unexpected crowd about the Micciché estate, about the land, about the Mafia. The parish priest, brother of Don Calò, tried to drown Li Causi’s voice by ringing the bells of his church. But the peasants listened and understood: ‘He’s right; they said: ‘blessed be the milk of the mother who suckled him, it’s gospel truth what he is saying.’ By so doing they were breaking a sense of time-honoured servitude, disobeying not just one order but order itself, challenging the laws of the powerful destroying authority, despising and offending prestige. It was then that Don Calò,. from the middle of the piazza, shouted ‘it’s all lies!’ The sound of his cry acted like a signal. The mafiosi began to shoot.

Fourteen people were wounded that day, including Li Causi.

There was peasant resistance in Calabria as well, the “toe” of southern Italy that appears to be kicking the island of Sicily. A 1945 CP report indicated that they had built peasant leagues with 40,000 members in Calabria, the very region that is the locale for “Black Souls”, an Italian film that opens at the Angelika and City Cinemas in New York tomorrow and at the Nuart in Los Angeles on April 24.

The blackness alluded to in the title is not skin color but the evil that dwells in the heart of brothers Luigi and Rocco Carbone. The two gangsters come from the town of Africo in Calabria, where their older brother Luciano raises goats on a picturesque mountaintop. Luciano’s son Leo, who is in his late teens, wants nothing to do with goats and only dreams of becoming an apprentice to Luigi and Rocco who run their drug importing business out of Milan.

When a traditional rival of the Carbone family, a local saloon-keeper in Africo, insults them, Leo arms himself with a shotgun and blows out his windows in the middle of the night. This is hardly the kind of offense that leads to gang wars of the sort that dominate American films but is in fact typical of what has turned much of southern Italy into a blood-soaked battleground.

If you are expecting Godfather type action of the “going to the mattresses” sort, not only won’t you find here but you shouldn’t. The violence in “Black Souls” is like that takes place over turf control by the Crips and the Bloods or the kind that has forced so many young people to flee El Salvador and Honduras. It is Luciano’s hope to dissuade Leo from a life of crime even though he knows it is a losing battle. The boy worships Luigi who is both charismatic in his own slimy fashion as well as filthy rich.

“Black Souls” is based on a novel written by Gioacchino Criaco, who was born in Africo and a lawyer who returned home to write about his region’s troubles. Like Juarez in Mexico, Africo is one of Calabria’s most dangerous spots. The film benefits from the casting of Giuseppe Fumo, a local nonprofessional, as Leo. He must have known from first-hand experience the tragic attraction that the mafia has for youth with an uncertain future.

Criaco is far more interested in the family drama that pits brother against brother for the soul of a young man than in the social and economic forces that have given birth to the mafia. Before long, I will be researching Italian films about the mafia that draw from radical and neorealist traditions but do not hesitate to recommend “Black Souls”, a film that is uncompromisingly bleak but truthful. It is blessed by a good script and fine performances. There’s not much more than one can ask for nowadays.


  1. For what it’s worth, I consider “Goodfellas” to be an entirely un-romantic, disturbing, sinister film, in which the violence is petty and unprovoked, and there is no luxury to be seen apart from some tacky 70s décor and lots of cocaine. So the somewhat tired claim that American mafia films inevitably ‘glorify’ mafiosi is not entirely convincing to me. Moreover, I was deeply unimpressed with the Italian film adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s brilliant document “Gomorrah”––where the book was a terrifying description of the global interdependence of criminal and ‘legitimate’ capitalism, with some of the most horrific gang violence ever portrayed (including sequences of violence no film-maker has ever even approached in their graphic sadism), the film was watered down and didn’t make much of the rich source material. Otherwise, thanks for the film recommendation; your subject matter––contemporary leftist neorealism––is likewise intriguing, and I will be checking this website for your discoveries.

    Comment by Reinhold — April 10, 2015 @ 12:29 am

  2. The problem with “Goodfellas” is that it does not give you any idea of the social consequence of the mafia, like dumping toxic waste in rivers, extortion from small businessmen trying to make a living, etc. Plus, it is primarily a fiction that is supposed to give the average viewer a sense of vicarious pleasure over the big “scores” and the easy living. Scorsese is certainly more realistic than Coppola but that’s not saying much. I had big problems with “Gomorrah” but will get into that later on.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 10, 2015 @ 1:10 am

  3. While I do agree that the characters on “The Sopranos” were a bit too likeable––my family is not connected, but some of my family know connected guys, and they’re not affable or likeable, they’re just ugly, scary scumbags––I think it did a pretty good job detailing the ‘negative externalities’ of mafia commerce, like the HUD scams and the attacks on Indian activists and so on. “Goodfellas” is a bit of a ‘rush’ in style, but for me, it’s still the one that makes them look like irredeemably bad people in every respect.

    Comment by Reinhold — April 10, 2015 @ 3:37 am

  4. I don’t think Goodfellas is “primarily a fiction.” It’s based on a memoir, and kept fairly close to the text.

    Comment by godoggo — April 10, 2015 @ 4:33 am

  5. “Goodfellas” is based on Henry Hill’s memoir “Wiseguy”, just as “Raging Bull” is based on the life of Jake LaMotta. But Scorsese transforms the material into his own patented style. For example, there’s a scene in “Goodfellas” where Hill takes his wife-to-be to a nightclub, entering through the kitchen, paying big tips along the way. This is a very sophisticated cinematic presentation of what was likely a much more mundane event, the whole function of which is to give the viewer a feeling that there is something special about being Henry Hill. As it turns out, I read “Wiseguy” after seeing the film. The book not only has a much more matter-of-fact quality; it also goes into detail about Hill’s brutality that was just as bad as Tommy’s (Joe Pesci). But in order to give the viewer a character to identify with–relatively speaking–Scorsese could not have shown Henry Hill sticking an icepick into someone’s eyes.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 10, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

  6. Don Calò Vizzini, top Mafia boss in western Sicily, not only ordered the 1944 Villalba shooting where a dozen people were wounded. He was behind Salvatore Giuliano who shot up the Communist meeting on May Day 1947 at Portella della Ginestra. 11 were killed there and 30 seriously wounded. In 1962 Francesco Rosi made a biopic of Giuliano that stripped him of his reputation as a Robin Hood. Luchino Visconti intended to treat the Villalba affair in his never finished ‘La terra trema’. He conceived this as a three part epic but only shot the first part about poor fisherman trying to form a co-op. Commissioned by the Italian Communist Party to do a short propaganda film for the 1948 election, Visconti used his own money and made a 160 minute film.

    It’s true that Matteo Garrone’s film ‘Gomorrah’ leaves out all the material in Roberto Saviano’s book that shows how the Camorra got to be a player in the world economy. The subtitle after all was “Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System.” Garrone and Saviano seem to have made a deliberate choice not to film the book. But what I like about their film is that it does show how organized crime penetrates every aspect of life in a community. American filmmakers never seem aware of this when telling us about the Mafia. In their movies, ‘good’ characters can always choose to step out of the Mafia world. In parts of Italy, that’s simply impossible. In today’s ‘Repubblica’ magazine there’s an article about the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria. Children are born into it, inducted at 10 and move up to different levels at 14 and 16. At 18 they are baptized killers. There’s no escape. The case is cited of a family where both parents are in jail and their 18 year old son is running their extortion racket–money is needed for lawyers. His younger sister is doing the necessary bookkeeping.

    The failure to see how the various Mafias are an integral part of some societies comes through in the American reception of the Neapolitan novelist Elena Ferrante. The ‘New Yorker’ and the ‘NY Times’ are full of praise for her serious feminism and narrative power. James Wood, an influential critic, puts his seal of excellence on her. But hardly anyone comments on how the Camorra is the air her characters breathe. It’s so much part of the city’s power structure that she hardly ever mentions it by name. The Camorra is always there like bad weather.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 10, 2015 @ 9:44 pm

  7. I have Rosi’s film on my list along with One Hundred Steps and The Mattei Affair.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 10, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

  8. “The failure to see how the various Mafias are an integral part of some societies comes through in the American reception of the Neapolitan novelist Elena Ferrante. The ‘New Yorker’ and the ‘NY Times’ are full of praise for her serious feminism and narrative power. James Wood, an influential critic, puts his seal of excellence on her. But hardly anyone comments on how the Camorra is the air her characters breathe. It’s so much part of the city’s power structure that she hardly ever mentions it by name. The Camorra is always there like bad weather.”

    Yes, you beat me to it before I got to a computer where I could post a comment. The Naples neighborhood where the protagonists, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, grow up, is controlled by the Camorra, and attempts to embrace a leftist alternative, as do Lila and Pasquale, fail to dislodge it. The Camorra are represented by the Solara family, with the brothers, Marcello and Michele, expanding the reach of their tentacles throughout Naples during the 1960s and 1970s. As they do so, the left exists on the periphery, unable to develop a mass base that would challenge their growing empire. Ultimately, neither Lila nor Elena are able to escape the power of the Solaras. Lila recognizes the corruption and that the foundation is built upon the collaboration of the Solaras with fascists, but can only pragmatically come to an accommodation with it. Elena becomes part of the intelligentsia, but even she must accept that her family remains vulnerable to their seductive allure.

    The misogynistic world in which Lila and Elena live is directly connected to the enduring social and economic influence of the Camorra and their fascist allies. As a consequence, they live emotionally stunted, difficult lives. The power of the three novels (with the fourth and final one coming in September 2015) lies in the consistent portrayal of a world in which all liberatory avenues are closed by the inability of the characters to effectively overcome this deeply entrenched system of power, one that permeates even the most personal relationships. It is the personalization of this power and the violence associated with it that makes these novels a frightening literary achievement.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 10, 2015 @ 10:34 pm

  9. Rosi also made a biopic of Lucky Luciano, which I cannot find. Any leads?

    Comment by Reinhold — April 11, 2015 @ 3:17 am

  10. Reinhold: I can’t help you from here. But I’d encourage you to keep looking. After Rosi’s recent death, Italian TV showed many of his films including ‘Lucky Luciano’. It illustrates perfectly the first paragraph of Louis’ piece. Lucky is played by the excellent Gian Maria Volonté, a product of the years when the P.C.I. dominated the cultural scene. Not likable, he’s a surly, crooked businessman. Obviously he has charisma. But then Lucky was no ordinary mortal. Rosi cuts him down to size somewhat by making much of his death from a heart attack in an airport like any old duffer. He’s no Jimmy Cagney dying in the gutter, gun still in hand, shouting defiance. There are some dark, funny bits. Rod Steiger plays a bumptious local mafioso. At one point he reflects on ancient Roman life and says to Lucky, Those were great days with the slaves doing all the work for you. Lucky gives him a poisonous look and says, Right, and you would have been one of them.

    Richard is absolutely right when he speaks of “a deeply entrenched system of power, one that permeates even the most personal relationships. It is the personalization of this power and the violence associated with it that makes these novels a frightening literary achievement.” The Neapolitan way of life for all its humanity (think of the great actor-playwright Eduardo De Filippo or the comedian Totò) is a heavy burden for Ferrante’s narrators to bear. That’s because the anti-modern, traditional ways have become one with the power system we’re decrying. The strength of these characters is in their contradictions that make the stories so urgent and full of energy. Take the narrator of ‘The Lost Daughter.’ She sees Neapolitan life as a curse, leaves it, breaks with its taboos about motherhood and family values and goes to live and work in another part of Italy. Returning for a seaside vacation she observes just how the power structure works in the simplest actions of the Neapolitans on the beach. She recognizes the old curse but is torn apart in an effort to sort out within herself its humanity from the rest.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 11, 2015 @ 11:53 am

  11. There are close links between organized crime, covert death squads, and the capitalist class going up to the present day. The US would much rather a Mexico as a narco state than a Mexico run by Leftists.

    Comment by purple — April 14, 2015 @ 11:16 pm

  12. Sorry, but Scorsese basically makes snuff films. There isn’t an ounce of morality in them, just vignettes of wanton violence with zero commentary.

    Comment by purple — April 14, 2015 @ 11:18 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: