Any mafia movie worth its salt has to have its share of bloodbaths and labyrinthine plotlines, right?

Any mafia movie worth its salt has to have its share of bloodbaths and labyrinthine plotlines, right? Throw some double crosses, a triple cross or two, or maybe even a quadruple cross in there, dress it up in a nice pinstripe suit and fedora, and there you have it. It’s as good as money in the bank.

But try to mix in too many laughs or lighten the mood a bit and it’s headed right for the shitter. Not so with Mafioso. Almost everything about this film is different from the Cosa Nostra status quo, and far from being a hindrance, this counts as one of its great successes. Made a decade before The Godfather set the precedent for all mafia films to follow, Mafioso explores the mob and its relationships in a much different way.

Mafioso follows Nino Badalamenti (Alberto Sordi), a modern, effective manager at a Milan auto factory, as he takes his Northern Italian wife and children down the boot to visit his hometown in Sicily. Although possessed of a true affection for his hometown, Nino has perhaps lost touch a little with his roots, pointing out the “old” customs of his family for his beautiful, urbane wife and two daughters.

Chief among these old customs is Nino’s devotion to local kingpin Don Vincenzo. The expected culture clashes between old and new occur and are of course resolved resulting in a big, happy family. However, the price paid by Nino is high, as he is called upon by Don Vincenzo to indulge the elderly Mafioso with a favor. As it turns out, Nino was a Mafioso of no small talent himself in his youth, and his skills are still needed by his old family, putting an end to the lighthearted vacation he had hoped for. The sharp and rambunctious humor of the film is wholly replaced by taut suspense and drama, which is made all the more effective by the preceding hilarities.

Artistically, Mafioso is finely crafted. From the opening sequence, full of the high-tech machinery of the auto factory (for 1962), to the crumbling, weather-beaten stones of Badalamenti’s Sicilian village home, the sense that one is right in front of whatever’s happening is inescapable. Shadowy close-ups punctuate the more dramatic moments, catching every bead of sweat and line of concentration on the somewhat clueless protagonist’s face. His wife’s every exasperated eye-roll is lovingly framed. One gets the sense that if Nino picked up on the subtleties of his surroundings and old friends as much as the viewer does, he might have had more of an idea of what was in store for him at the end of the movie.

It’s difficult to compare Mafioso to the canon of mobster movies that came after it, since it’s worlds away from the post-Godfather aesthetic that dictates most of its modern-day kin. Instead of the usual slow burn punctuated by various hits and minor characters being killed off, Mafioso starts as the film equivalent of a shaken-up can of soda, exploding onto the screen and almost making the viewer forget that this is even a film about the mafia. Of course, by the end of the film it’s painfully clear just how much this initially funny movie is about the mafia. Essentially, it avoids being weighed down by its own well timed, strategic seriousness, which, since The Godfather‘s epic assortment of characters embroiled in nearly constant drama, is par for the course.

When Mafioso‘s drama does finally manifest itself, it does so with a more modernist, abstract aesthetic than the usual gritty realism of its later peers. Although the one hit in the movie only lasts about a minute and a half, by the time it happens every step Nino takes towards his target, and every second he’s delayed, is a true nail-biter. By the time the poor guy actually kills his victim, the viewer is almost as relieved as he is. The Godfather‘s hit scenes, for the most part, share this kind of sparsity and impact, but happen more frequently, and by the time of films such as Goodfellas, the amount of carnage necessary to achieve the same effect had risen dramatically. Not to disparage the fine tradition of gore in mafia films, but after a certain point you might as well be watching a Troma movie.

While not quite what you might expect, Mafioso is nevertheless a fine film. It stands apart from the rest of its genre stylistically, while still maintaining the substance of loyalty, obligation and self-sacrifice that makes mafia movies compelling and interesting in the first place. It makes all but the best of these films that came after seem boring and contrived.

Mafioso at Cinema 21

May 18-24

7 p.m. and 9:10 p.m., plus 2:15 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday