Young Rita (Miriana Faja) sees too much in "The Sicilian Girl".

The writhing tentacles of the Cosa Nostra have been catnip for filmmakers in both the United States and Italy for many years. But is the gangster film beginning to lose a little juice? Has the last drop of drama finally been wrung from the made men of the mafia? The Sicilian Girl (La siciliana ribelle), a new drama from director Marco Amenta opening at the Shattuck Cinemas Friday September 17, suggests that such may be the case.

Based on a true story previously examined by Amenta in his 1997 documentary Diario di una siciliana ribelle, the film begins in the immediate wake of a farmer’s murder at the hands of rich landowner Bellafiore (Salvatore Schembari). Local enforcer Don Michele (Marcelo Mazzarella) and his worshipful 11-year old daughter Rita (Miriana Faja) happen upon the scene, and the victim’s family begs him for revenge. The local police being in Bellafiore’s pocket, he promises the dirt-poor farmers that justice will be served and vengeance meted out — mafia style.

Bellafiore is subsequently caught in a compromising position and strangled to death by Michele’s men. When the Palermo police come to investigate his murder, Don Michele lets them know he’s not impressed by their work, and Rita throws a piece of cake at the local magistrate (clumsily dubbed French actor Gerard Jugnot). In the film’s most powerful scene, Michele is then assassinated in full view of Rita as she rides her new bicycle.

Six years later, teenage Rita (now played by Veronica d’Agostino) is eager for revenge. Knowing that Don Michele’s mafia superior, Don Salvo (Mario Pupella), is responsible for the death of her father and the subsequent murder of her brother Carmelo (Carmelo Galati), she agrees to help her old cake-encrusted nemesis with his investigations. Sworn into a witness protection program and given a new identity, Rita plans to testify against the man she once knew us Uncle Salvo — if, of course, she lives long enough to do so.

The Sicilian Girl draws inspiration from several genres, including the poliziotteschi (crime films) of the 1970s and ‘80s, the ‘peasant epics’ of Ermanno Olmi and the Taviani Brothers, and the political thrillers of Francesco Rosi. That said, however, the film is most decidedly not the sum of its parts, and after its elegant and well-constructed first act, it sinks into routine courtroom melodrama.

The film’s characters rarely deviate from type and are never developed enough to engage our interest. The moon-faced, pouty d’Agostino (who bears a disturbing resemblance to ‘30s child star Freddie Bartholomew) brings a fiery intensity to her role but little else, Jugnot’s magistrate does little more than frown and roll his eyes, and Pupella’s apparently limitless appetite for food and drink places him firmly within the pantheon of cinema mob bosses. Don Michele’s intriguing blend of swagger, joi de vivre, and brutal efficiency make him the film’s sole multifaceted character— but he, of course, is gone after the first twenty minutes.

The Sicilian Girl is far from a bad film, but in comparison to last year’s powerful Gomorrah (proof that perhaps there is a little life left in the old genre yet) it’s a minor work. However, there’s still much of value here, including (in addition to Mazzarella’s performance) Luca Bigazzi’s elegant cinematography and Pasquale Catalano’s spare but effective score.

Though the film may not make you an offer you can’t refuse, neither does it deserve to sleep with the fishes. Fans of European cinema could do far worse.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Avatar photo

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...