Oakland Tribune Outtakes

Notes from Oakland, Berkeley and in between

Movies and mafia: Fortapasc

By awoodall
Friday, November 20th, 2009 at 11:19 am in Night Owl.

The timing of Italian director Marco Risi could not have been worse.  He struggled for five years to make the film Fortapàsc, which screened Sunday in San Francisco, only to be upstaged by the release of Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s adaptation of journalist Roberto Saviano’s best-selling book about the Camorra.

The origins of the Camorra date back to the early 19th Century.  Over the years, what began as a loosely organized band of ex-convicts developed into a powerful force well beyond its stronghold in Naples. The Camorra’s influence stretches into virtually every continent including the United States. The FBI estimates that nearly 200 Camorra affiliates reside in this country, many of whom arrived in the past three decades.

Risi’s film revolves around the 1985 murder of journalist Giancarlo Siani (played by Libero de Rienzo), whose reporting about the ties between the Camorra and the local politicians led to his assassination.


It was shown as part of the New Italian Cinema series presented by the San Francisco Film Society.  The series continues until Sunday. (No, Italian film did not stop with Fellini, Bertolucci and Antonioni.)  The title Fortapàsc comes from a scene in which the mayor of Torre Annunziata – a violent Naples neighborhood — denounces a particularly bloody shootout between rival clans in broad daylight.

“This is not Fort Apache!” Mayor Cassano (Ennio Fantastichini) thunders from atop a makeshift stage at a small audience. It might as well be. 

One of the film’s most telling scenes comes when Siani arrives at a crumbling water park, an obvious boondoggle where a victim of the war between Camorra clans has been dumped. In another, Siani visits a dusty, decrepit camp where victims of the 1980 earthquake lived for years while the reconstruction money from the government was siphoned off by Camorra families and local politicians. The camp looks like the ancient ruins of a destroyed society instead of part of an industrialized, Democratic state.

The reality in Naples really is that bad, announced Risi Sunday evening at a sold-out showing of the film in San Francisco. Risi said organized crime has continued unabated since Siani was gunned down – despite a wave of crackdowns in the early 1990s and a spate of recent high profile arrests including women from the clan responsible for Siani’s murder.

The fear people live under is paralyzing, Risi said.  (We discussed some of this later so I am paraphrasing his English and my Italian.) Recently a Camorra capo was gunned down in front of a crowded bar. No one said a word and no one has stepped forward to identify the shooter although his face was captured on a security camera.

Risi didn’t mince words when he told the audience that the United States had a hand in spawning the modern-day mafia after a man asked how the organized crime syndicate originated. This isn’t the place for a long description, but essentially during World War II the Allies defeated (in the south) the Fascist/Nazi forces controlling Italy, occupied the southern end of the peninsula with devastating results in many cases and used mafia as go-betweens. I am not making this up: American mafia boss Lucky Luciano, for example, returned to Italy under the protection of the Allies during that time. Decisions made during the occupation set the stage for the mafia to thrive under Italian governance.

“This is the story of the struggle of people in Italy,” said an Italian emigrant Stefano Natoli at the Sunday night screening at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

 “We’re talking about a lot of money and a big structure which will take a long time to fix,” said Natoli, who lives in San Francisco.

The lawlessness that Risi portrays and the dismal crumbling infrastructure evident throughout the film recalls Fort Apache the Bronx — another film that riffs on John Ford’s western (which comes out sounding like “Fort Apash” in the local accent).

An important subplot of the film is Siani’s drive to make it as a full-fledged journalist, giving the film the feel of an Italian version of All the Presidents Men. Except that Siani was killed on Sept. 25, 1985. He was 26. Risi said he too was at the receiving end of subtle Camorra intimidation after the film was released. Saviano has been under 24-hour police protection since its publication. Numerous reporters are likewise under guard. They are the journalists who bypass the voyeuristic reporting about mafia, which is responsible for the murder of nine journalists since 1960, according to Information Safety and Freedom

Fortapàsc and Gomorrah compliment each other because they take place 15 years apart and explore different stages and sides of the same problem. Gomorrah is a stark, unsentimental look at the crime syndicate from the inside. Fortapàsc uses Siani’s story to create an emotion connection. When Siani is killed outside of his family home the murder feels like a crime instead of a “hit” depicted in stylized Hollywood versions of the mafia.

The two films mostly avoid the stylized violence of The Godfather and Goodfellas (for starters) to show an ugly banality that is closer to the truth. However, some the characters in Fortapàsc seem like they were pulled straight out of central mafia casting for a Scorsese or Coppola film, which are in fact more popular in Italy than Italian movies, according to Risi.  Likewise, Risi has to make Siani likeable to provoke a reaction for the audience. He doesn’t make the character an angel (impossible when a reporter is the subject). But Siani still becomes a bit too saintly in the process.

Nonetheless, Fortapàsc provides a valuable multi-dimensional view of Italy that few outsiders have access to. “It is really difficult living there,” Risi said. 

For tickets, at $12.50 general, $10 for San Francisco Film Society members, and a full schedule, visit www.sffs.org.

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