Film and TV

Other People's Life Shines

For American moviegoers with a blood lust for organized crime, the Boss of all Bosses has long been named Corleone. Is it Vito? Or Michael? That's a matter of personal preference. In any event, so beloved and enduring are the Godfather films -- the first and second, anyway -- that any latter-day movie don with his eye on the power had better make a big-league effort if he expects turn our heads.

Now comes a Southern Italian mobster who has just such designs. In Nicola De Rinaldo's Other People¹s Life (La Vita Degli Altri), we meet Mariano (Renato Carpentieri), a veteran member of the Cammora -- the Neapolitan version of Sicily's Mafia -- who's facing career choices every bit as grave as the decision to hit the Tataglia brothers, or to shoot poor, foolish Fredo in his fishing skiff on Lake Tahoe. Aging and haunted, Mariano has seen (and done) terrible things. His wife was killed years ago in a misdirected car-bomb blast. His powerful associate, Aprea, has just been gunned down, throwing the gangland of Naples into chaos. Mariano can't stop thinking about his brother Salvatore, stabbed to death in his youth in a false vendetta. He's also worried about protecting his daughter, Silvia (Maya Sansa), who detests him for the life he's led but doesn't understand the ways in which he's kept her from harm.

Along with all that, Mount Vesuvius has developed a major case of heartburn and is threatening to erupt for the first time since 1944. As far as symbols go, this one isn't bad: Simmering tensions in the underworld could soon explode, too, inundating Mariano, his daughter and his henchman. Where do you go?

Sick of betrayals and wearied by guilt, Mariano's now trying to leave the gun and take the cannoli, so to speak: While his fellow Cammoristi battle each other for control in the teeming streets of Naples, the old man puts on dark glasses and retreats to his decrepit villa on the very slope of Vesuvius -- there to nibble on caprese in the sunlit garden, stroke his loyal dog and fend off the memories of a violent and misspent life.

"Tutto finito," he declares. All done. But the members of so-called Honored Societies don't have an easy time retiring (as Corleone the Younger reminded us in Godfather III), and Mariano cannot easily escape the wages of sin. A shady municipal judge wants him to snitch on his old amici in return for protection. His wary, hard-edged sister, Teresa (Rosa Pianeta), has some agenda of her own. Most dangerous of all, a sleek, vicious rival mobster called Cennamo (Patrizio Rispo) clearly has it in for Mariano.

Among the things we learn from this nicely made, beautifully acted film are that the Cammora is no less ruthless than La Cosa Nostra, that most of Bella Napoli could still do with a coat of paint, and that official plans for protecting the citizenry in the event of volcanic eruption leave much to be desired. But then, Neapolitans have always embraced angry Vesuvius -- Goethe called it "a peak of hell rising out of paradise" -- with the same spirit of fatalism they apply to cholera epidemics (the last one was in 1973!), corrupt politicians and casual bloodletting. This is a city, after all, where one conquering ruler, fifteenth-century Aragonese despot Ferdinand I, surrounded himself with the embalmed corpses of his slain enemies, fully dressed.

What we don't expect to learn from this rather quirky Mob movie is that the tough-guy protagonist not only has a conscience, but he's susceptible to a little tender loving care. That comes in the form of another emotional refugee, an attractive young volcanologist named Luisa (Maria Teresa Saponangelo), who's been sent by the government to Mariano's property to keep seismic track of Vesuvius's latest fit of bad temper. While tending her instruments, she overhears more than she should about the growing crime feuds downtown, and she's drawn to the quiet old man who treats her with such unexpected dignity. To director De Rinaldo's credit, he declines to make of this a hot-blooded May-December romance. Rather, it's a lovely meeting of minds between two people keenly aware of their failures. They have no future, but they've touched each other.

Meanwhile, the movie manages to touch us, despite its bloody backdrops. Carpentieri, who looks a bit like the older Anthony Quinn, will never match up in the popular imagination to the dominating figure of Marlon Brando, and Other People's Life is no Godfather. But this modest yet powerful portrait of a violent man plagued by regrets and momentarily redeemed by tenderness deserves a special place in the history of gangster movies.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo