CBS; Sunday, Nov. 16, and Tuesday, Nov. 18; 9 p.m.
It is now officially time to say, "Enough." Or, as Vanessa Redgrave, the most absurd TV Sicilian in the long and storied history of television Sicilians, might say, "Basta."
Redgrave mumbles her way through the role of matriarch to a female-dominated Mafia family (it includes Redgrave, Illeana Douglas, Nastassja Kinski, and Jennifer Tilly) in the worst Mafia drama ever made, Bella Mafia, which is brought to us by the increasingly desperate programming executives at CBS, the same people who earlier this year eviscerated Mario Puzo's The Last Don in order to make the second-worst Mafia drama of all time.
Part 1 of Bella Mafia airs this Sunday; the conclusion airs two nights later. It is stupendously, heroically, operatically bad. It is four hours of full-bore, flat-out dreck, a festival of dreck. It makes no sense; it is situated in neither time nor place; the acting is atrocious; the writing is inadvertently hysterical. It also perpetuates every stereotype ever condemned by the Sons of Italy. I wish I were Italian, if only so I could write this review as a protest against the slander of my people. (I also wish I were Italian so I could credibly wear Sergio Tacchini warm-up suits, but leave that for now.)
I do, however, recommend Bella Mafia unabashedly: two broken thumbs up. It's rare to see television so horrible and campy and creepy all at once. Usually, you need either to flip channels madly to get all that simultaneously, or to watch Barbara Walters.
I will attempt to provide a brief synopsis of the plot, with the caveat that I could not understand the plot. Bella Mafia opens with the imminent departure to America of Michael, the good son of the leisure-wear-wearing Luciano Mafia family. (Sample family dialogue: "I don't want the feds here. We have a good, if uneasy, alliance, and no amount of bribes will keep them from breathing down our necks." You can almost hear the punctuation.) Michael's parents are Mafia chief Don Roberto Luciano, played by Dennis Farina, who speaks English with an American accent even though he's supposed to be Sicilian; and his wife, played by Redgrave, who is blond and looks like Charlton Heston and speaks with a Viking accent, or something. Michael is going to Harvard, which means that he will get killed before he leaves Sicily, which is what happens, though not before he impregnates his girlfriend Sophia, played by Kinski. One day, after the evil spawn of this illegitimate coupling grows up to kill the twin sons she raises with one of Michael's other brothers, she herself will knife him to death, and she will find out only as he's dying that he was in fact her son. Then she and her sisters-in-law--one of whom is Tilly, whose breasts, you should pardon the expression, hang out from here to Bensonhurst (and who is the only member of this ensemble cast playing it for camp)--kill all the other Mafia bosses and take everyone's money, proving that Mafia women are smarter than Mafia men. Anyway, I think this is what happens.
Speaking of Sergio Tacchini warm-up suits, let me say that the makers of this film have missed the opportunity to explore the depths of their subject, because I have found, in my limited travels in the Italian-American organized-crime subculture (I was "going through my period of curiosity," to quote Marv Albert), that the women are infinitely more interesting than the men, and more resourceful.
One of the encounters with a mob woman I remember best occurred in a strip bar on Staten Island, where I went to look for a certain known associate of the Genovese crime family as part of a long-forgotten magazine assignment. It was a mob-controlled strip bar (surprisingly), and it was the wrong one, alas, but I met the bar's manager, a blond woman who seemed to be related to a made man, whom we will call, for reasons of libel-proofing, "Inky the Squid Calamari." As I asked her about the patrons of the aforementioned strip bar, two things happened. One of the dancers swung her breasts so close to me I could tell that her left silicone implant was dangerously askew, nearly forcing me to report her to the FDA. And the manager removed a baseball bat from behind the bar and threatened various lowlifes who were harassing one of her girls. She scared the hell out of them, and they fled. It was quite a demonstration of feminist power, and I asked her where she had learned that sort of courage. She responded, in effect, that the daddies of this particular ethnocriminal subset know it is their daughters who are the brave ones, but sexism keeps them from letting them in on the serious "business" opportunities. I immediately thought I had a screenplay there.
I did not make a go of that screenplay, and I hesitate to write much more in this vein, because as a fake Italian, I am growing ever more offended at the impunity with which popular culture abuses my people. Which brings us back to Bella Mafia, which, of course, is populated entirely by Don This and Don That, by knife-wielding Sicilian widows and grappa-swilling greaseballs, corrupt monks and sociopathic goombahs.
Interestingly, though, CBS has let slip through its public-relations firewall a clue that even the people involved in this miniseries hate this sort of Italian-bashing garbage. Buried in the press packet that accompanied the BellaMafia videotapes is this release: "The Women of BellaMafia Ponder Their Real Life Mafia Encounters ..."
Most of it is predictable Hollywood drivel, but Douglas, who plays one of the sisters-in-law, is quoted as saying:
I think the Italian community is an interesting one because the Italian-American culture is the only culture that is made fun of in the movies. They're depicted as mobsters and while that may not necessarily be true, I think it's a culture you can attack and portray without any sort of backlash.
I called Mark O'Connor, the publicity man responsible for the release, and asked to speak with Douglas, to assess, among other things, her degree of self-awareness. It was too late for that, he said, and when I asked him if it was not just the slightest bit hypocritical to quote Douglas condemning Italian-bashing as she stars in a miniseries that trafficks in caricature, he said, "I think it was a general statement she was trying to make, but it could be taken differently," which is publicity-speak for, "Leave me alone, punko."
I think, if I'm not mistaken, that CBS is subconsciously signaling the public that it wants to be punished for airing BellaMafia.
Let the shooting begin.