Alexander Stille's Excellent Cadavers.

Reading and lounging and watching.
July 26 2006 3:52 PM

Martyred by the Mob

What Giovanni Falcone died for, and why.

Giovanni Falcone. Click image to expand.
Giovanni Falcone

In file footage, Giovanni Falcone, already a kind of secular saint to his many admirers, is even, well, better than one could have hoped—gentle, and yet unbreakable, especially in the earlier interviews, before he had taken on the sickly poise of a decent man marked for extinction by the Cosa Nostra. Falcone ran the so-called maxi-trial in the 1980s, the first Italian prosecution to acknowledge the existence of the Mafia; which is to say, it was Falcone's modest assignment to reverse the tide of history. ("This is the trial of the mafia organization called 'Cosa Nostra,' " begins Falcone's indictment, a document that has been soberly compared to Tolstoy, "which, with violence and intimidation, has sowed, and continues to sow, death and terror.") He remained relentless in that pursuit, "a human jackhammer," as a colleague recalled, even after he knew he'd become a dead man walking. "Cowards die many times a day, a brave man only once," he told an interviewer, his manner so diffident that no one could begrudge him the implied self-regard. Toward the end, Falcone slept on the floor, so as not to sleep too soundly, and even started carrying a pistol. It made no difference, of course. On May 23, 1992, en route from the Palermo airport, Giovanni Falcone, martyr to the cause of basic civic decency, along with his wife and three police escorts, was killed by 500 kilos of plastic explosives, enough bomb to rubble a quarter-mile of Sicilian highway.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

The story of Falcone's fight against the Mezzogiorno's elaborate cultus of intimidation and murder is not well-known here in America, a country otherwise obsessed with the Mafia. But then again, what does bada bing have to do with  Falcone, a public servant who wanted to make the world safe for all the sexless virtues the gangster lives to imperil? Falcone won a spectacular array of convictions against the mob before he was exterminated, and his story is the subject of a superb new documentary, Excellent Cadavers, based on the (equally superb) book by the American journalist Alexander Stille. ("Excellent cadaver" is the grim Sicilian honorific given to a prominent government official assassinated by the mob.) Stille enlists the help of Letizia Battaglia, an Italian photojournalist now in her 70s, who photographed each of the excellent cadavers during a period in which a new one seemed to appear every day. (Not quite: At the height of the violence, there was a mob killing only every three days in Palermo.) Battaglia's corpses are arresting—made men in shattered cars, heads cocked back, or strewn wantonly on sidewalks—but the most affecting image from the movie may be a simple bit of graffito splayed against a concrete wall: Falcone Grazie.

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To understand what we—not just Sicilians, not just Italians, but we Americans, the people of Little Caeser and Young Jeezy, to whom the gangster is less a terrorist than a housebroken minstrel—owe Falcone by way of thanks, it is best to think of Sicily not as a remote backwater but, as the Australian journalist Peter Robb clearly sees it, as the pure point of contact between the modern conscious and unconscious mind. Where Stille has written the finest book on the mob trials, Robb has written the finest recent book on Sicily, Midnight in Sicily, and here I must drop all reviewerly protocol and insist people purchase and read this book immediately: There will be a quiz on Monday, no excuses.

Midnight in Sicily is as exquisitely prodigal as its subject, an unconquerably inward island occupied in turn by would-be conquerors, from the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Arabs, and the Bourbons, to the allied armies of World War II. For Robb, Sicily is a sensuous dreamscape, a place free from abstraction or the impersonal norms of modern life. All of Italy, Robb reminds us, is a society not of "contrast and difference but nuance and interrelationship," and Sicily is simply the soul of these nuances and interrelationships, which in their extreme become ineradicably criminal. What Robb shows us is a place of lurid beauty, yes, but also of unending connivance, where sunlight has never disinfected anything, and secret histories melt into quicklime by the hour.

Sheets commemorating Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino
Sheets commemorating Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino

With the advent of heroin, and the internationalization of the drug trade, corruption finally spiraled out of control, taking with it all the backwater charm. "When you walked into the new parts of Palermo," Robb reported upon his return to Sicily in the '90s, in the wake of Falcone's death, "it was like walking into the mafia mind. The sightless concrete blocks had multiplied like cancer cells. The mafia mind was totalitarian and even on a summer day it chilled you. Italy for decades consumed more cement per capita than any other country in the world and in Sicily construction was in the hands of the Cosa Nostra. Construction, property development, real estate had once been the main business for mafia firms. Now they were where the drug money went to the laundry." It was against this tendency, toward microclimates of total fear, that Falcone offered up a life in public service. Falcone's prosecutions culminated in the arrest of the "godfather," Toto Riina, a butcher who while supposedly on the lam from Italian law enforcement lived brazenly in freedom, in his hometown of Palermo. But Falcone's greatest victory may have been winning the self-respect of a people forced indoors by terror. In Stille's film, as the government ministers file into Falcone's funeral, a crowd openly taunts them. "Murderers! Clowns! Accomplices! Go back to your bribes!" In the subsequent days, people who had learned over the course of a millennium how to notice nothing, and clear out of a street noiselessly, began hanging bedsheets out their window, demanding justice, and proclaiming, "Falcone lives!"

Falcone was himself a native of Palermo. His father was a chemist, and his family, as Stille argues in the book Excellent Cadavers, as members of the professional middle class, were never the Mafia's direct victim. (They were, though, intimately familiar with Mafiosi; Falcone grew up to prosecute some childhood acquaintances.) In its grifting, the mafia largely left the petite bourgeoisie alone; and left alone, the petite bourgeoisie developed a normal sense of national allegiance. To the idea of an Italian state strong enough to counteract a culture of lawlessness, and to the civic trust that must undergird any such state, Falcone gave his life. As Leonardo Messina, a former Mafiosi, testified before the Italian Parliament, "People in Sicily are beginning to believe in the state because now even the son of the street sweeper or a shoemaker may go to university and no longer wants to be the subject of the mafia." An American audience will likely be surprised at how frequently "the state" is invoked by Stille's subjects as an ideal, and at how cruelly it is mocked for being so obviously compromised in reality. At the funeral for her husband, one of Falcone's slain bodyguards, Rosario Schifani, stands at the microphone, a priest at her side, propping her up. To the most powerful men in Italy she keens: "My Vito Schifani … the state, the state why are the Mafiosi still inside the state? I pardon you, but get down on your knees. But they don't want to change … too much blood; there's no love here, there's no love here, there's no love here, there's no love at all."

The story of gangsterism in Palermo is the story of a people forced indoors by fear. The story of gangsterism in America is the story of a people lured indoors by television. In George De Stefano's An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America, the most startling photo is of a theater marquee in 1950, offering "Free to Public" the televised Kefauver hearings on organized crime. We not only didn't bowl alone in 1950, we didn't watch television alone. Now, it may be that, 50 years on, we enjoy enough residual social trust in this country to support our pop-fetish of Tony Soprano; but a darker spin is also possible. Quite unlike Peter Robb's Italy, ours is a culture of relentless contrast and difference, of clarion statements detailing profit and loss, and in order to live with the Apollonian grind we have created, we inhabit, in our TVs and iPods, a charismatic dream life by way of compensation. Against the regulatory abstractions of modern life—the state, due process, the sanctity of contracts, and all the invisible gods of late capitalism that we, in our reptile brains, despise—we posit an alternate universe, filled with cowboys and Jedis and, of course, gangsters.

For being at least partially real—those extras and bit players on TheSopranos, they're the genuine article, made men, right?—the gangster lies seductively athwart our dream and waking states. Fact or fantasy, or both, he re-personalizes life, returning to a rationalist world all the comforts of tribal paternalism and face-to-face negotiation. What a lovely holiday, this state of nature. But the principle of honor is terminally weak, and the circle of trust always shrinking, from tribe to neighborhood to family to individual, until distrust is pervasive, and civil society breaks down. (In Midnight in Sicily, Robb describes the typical Sicilian domicile, a dreary hybrid of the bunker and the hovel.) Finally the individual, stranded upon himself, must confront the state of nature as it actually is; not as a domain of pure charisma, a juvenile utopia of unchecked masculine prerogative, but as a place of "continual fear and danger of violent death," as Hobbes so deathlessly put it.

To wake us from this half-dream; to force us to recognize the gangster for what he is, a backslide away from full human maturity: this, I would argue, is what Giovanni Falcone, martyr to civic decency, died for.

Note: I feel bad for having excluded, due to constraints of time, space, and energy, any mention of Falcone's childhood friend and fellow martyr to the cause of decency, Paolo Borsellino, murdered only two months after Falcone. Palermo has not been so remiss: The city's airport is now named "Falcone-Borsellino Airport."

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