“Given that Mafioso boils down to three men talking for an hour, the documentary relies on the intensity of them pouring out their conscience, which makes it a visually flat but hair-raising experience that explores the hole that crime cuts out from the soul.”
“How do you sleep afterwards?” Filmmaker Mosco Levi Boucault’s voice is heard only once during his documentary Mafioso, in the Heart of Darkness, but it is a question that is probably burning on everyone’s lips watching the film. Accompanied by archive photos, footage, and occasional background info on events and the men he interviews, Boucault cutting out his own questions means that Mafioso essentially is made up of three monologues in which the men explore their actions to try and formulate an answer. The result is sobering, disenchanting even: it was just a job.
The three men Boucault interviews (Giovanni Brusca, Giuseppe Marchese, and Paolo Francesco Anzelmo) in his short but intense documentary are all former members of the Cosa Nostra known as ‘men of honour’, though one wonders where the honour in their deeds was. All three are pentiti (state witnesses) that are collaborating with the authorities in return for a spot in Italy’s witness protection program. In the ’90s their testimony helped deal the Cosa Nostra a massive blow and put key figures behind bars, but there are still people out there who would love to get their hands on them, requiring them to hide their current identities under balaclavas and backlighting. They operated mostly in the ’70s and ’80s, and the number of murders they committed is in the triple digits (Brusca alone admits that he is responsible for more than 100 ‘hits’). The man ordering the murders was the infamous Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina, nicknamed ‘The Beast’, the head of all the mafia clans in Sicily and the one who plunged the island into an all-out war between the different clans and later against the state; an era of enormous violence in which the mafia did not back down from murdering women and children (Brusca admits he strangled the teenage son of an informant; he is also the man who detonated the explosives that killed judge Giovanni Falcone, a murder that shocked the nation). There’s no emotion when they talk about what they’ve done, as if it was the most ordinary thing to them. Although their words hint that even at the time they knew it was not a regular job, it was in the end just a job. You had to split your personality, one of them says: you were an ordinary family man with a job in one half, and a cold-blooded killer in the other. When a hit was ordered you did it, no questions asked.
The men talk us through their methods of killing methodically. Guns were easy, a matter of seconds. Strangulation was tougher, because death could take minutes. It did mean you could dissolve the body in acid though, a common practice to hide the murders: no body, no crime. Minutes later their thoughts would already be elsewhere. Tellingly, they also show no remorse. The reasons for becoming informants are generally personal, either the safety of their families or their own. Brusca defected after finding out Riina had ordered a hit on him, for instance. Yet they had no qualms with murdering their own either, as Anzelmo admits to murdering two uncles. Cosa Nostra came before family.
The film also highlights the strange relationship the mafioso have with religion. Their initiation ritual involves a burning image of Jesus smeared with their own blood. After a murder they’d run to church to confess. Yet we see footage of the late Pope John Paul II fiercely condemning them in a fiery speech upon visiting Sicily after the murder of a high-ranking officer. There’s a duality there that is hard to fathom, as if the split personality is between a light and a dark side that men can switch to in an instant, forgetting the other side exists. Boucault explores the darkness in them in Mafioso, a clear companion piece to his previous film Corleone. Given that Mafioso boils down to three men talking for an hour, the documentary relies on the intensity of them pouring out their conscience, which makes it a visually flat but hair-raising experience that explores the hole that crime cuts out from the soul. How could they live with their darkness? How indeed could they sleep afterwards?