REVIEW: Sicilian Girl Turns Real-Life Mafia Tale Into Melodramatic Slog
Based on a true story which director Marco Amenta explored 12 years ago in documentary form, The Sicilian Girl feels powered by unfocused preoccupation, rather than by a more compelling creative ambition. Something about the story of Rita Atria -- a young woman who turned against her family and the mafia culture that defined them and helped the police gather a high profile case in 1991 -- has clearly struck fellow Sicilian Amenta deeply. Fictionalizing the story might have served as an occasion to inscribe that connection more personally (something Werner Herzog achieved with Rescue Dawn, his feature revamp of Little Dieter Needs to Fly); instead the story is translated, in Amenta's first feature, into the heavy meter of gangster melodrama.
Part of the problem is that the story lends itself to that language all too readily. We meet Rita Mancuso (Amenta changed most of the names, he says, "to have more freedom with the story") as an eleven-year-old girl (she is played at that age with theatrical sass by Miriana Faja and as a teen by Veronica D'Agostino) in Balata, a small Sicilian enclave. She's a haughty thing who defies her extravagantly bitter mother (Lucia Sardo) with perfect confidence, and why not? She's the spoiled pet of her father, Don Michele (Marcello Mazzarella), a small-time mafia kingpin who keeps her under an indulgent wing while he makes his rounds in the village.
Cruising that beat with him she witnesses local horrors, including the blown-apart body of a neighboring farmer, and razzes the local prosecutor (Gérard Jugnot) when he questions Don Michele about a brewing blood feud. "I am a respected man in this village," Don Michele warns, seething over being faced by the fuzz in a crowded public square. "Maybe you're respected," the prosecutor counters, "but are you respectable?"
Dialogue like that runs like thick, marinara-scented soap throughout The Sicilian Girl, the product, in part, of screenwriter Sergio Donati (Amenta and Gianni Romoli co-wrote), whose extensive tour of duty in Italian film and television (almost 80 credits) seems to have had a calcifying effect. "Even tomatoes tasted like blood," Rita says during one of her intermittent stints of narration -- another well-worn tool that chips away at the film's chances of taking some kind of sovereign shape. The men (including Don Michele's brother-turned-rival, Don Salvo, played by Mario Pupella) wear heavy, fur-collared coats and have immaculately groomed facial hair; the scrubby Sicilian countryside is shot, by turns, through an amber varnish and an ashy Vesuvial haze. Because Jugnot is a Frenchman there is even opportunity for the ultimate campy trope: Most of his dialogue appears to have been dubbed.
D'Agostino has a tough, peasant face and a similarly solid frame; she's been packing heat since she was a young girl (she witnesses her father's murder -- one of the most vivid and wrenching scenes in a film that strains too often for effect -- and takes his gun as a keepsake), and she and her brother vow a well-gestated revenge on Don Salvo, a long-term plan that is disrupted when her brother too is killed. In fact every important man in Rita's life is systematically rubbed out; combined with the hovering expectation that she will soon join them in aquatic slumber, the cycle of tragedy begins to numb rather than heighten dramatic response.
Amenta tries to temper the portent with a more intimate psychological throughline: Though it is a consuming vendetta that leads Rita back to the prosecutor she spat on as a child, entering the witness-protection program, traveling to Rome, and cutting ties with her community forces her to reckon with who her father and brother really were. Though her name is changed several times, truly altering her identity and inbred ideas about family and clan loyalty would seem to require a transfusion as well.
Less successful is the procedural aspect of the film, which takes up much of its second half. Understanding the highly idiosyncratic, permeable Italian legal system (most recently exposed by the trial of American Amanda "Foxy Knoxy" Knox) would seem to be key to involving the viewer in a depiction of how a case like Rita's would be tried. The diaries that she kept as a young girl made up the bulk of the prosecution's case and were grounds for the arrest of at least a dozen suspects. Although the case plays out at some length, there is never a clear sense of what exactly is at stake, what evidence is permissible, or why a witness impugning Rita's deceased father with pure hearsay could jeopardize the whole shebang.
What the trial does present clearly is the opportunity for Amenta to bear down even further on the story's dramatic pulse points; if the mal'occhio could kill, the whole thing would have ended before the judge put butt to bench. The end, when it does come, feels even more random and senseless than it actually was. Which, unlike The Sicilian Girl, is really saying something.