“The Mayor of Rione Sanità” – An offer you shouldn’t refuse [MOVIE REVIEW]

Francesco Di Leva as Don Antonio in "The Mayor of Rione Sanità.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement Plus.

Who doesn’t like a good gangster movie, full of over-the-top thugs, killer scenery (where killer has several meanings), and a Don with a commanding presence? “The Mayor of Rione Sanità” carves out its own niche in the gangster canon, mashing up Scorcese-style tough guys with street gang mythology and a little cartel violence, setting it in the motherland of inspiration, Naples.

Francesco Di Leva as Don Antonio in “The Mayor of Rione Sanità.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement Plus.

Tattooed tough guy Don Antonio Barracano, whose one iron fist is gloved in velvet and the other is wrapped in gauze from the latest justice meted out to a rival, rules his rione (small district) justly, or so he believes. He’s for the little guy, although there is a certain amount of disingenuity to his so-called magnanimity. Claiming that the society is skewed against the common man, the ignorant, he is there to defend them. Besides, as he confides to one of his henchmen, there’s a lot of money to be made off the uneducated.

Don Antonio spends a great deal of time at his lavish country home surrounded by the spoils of his work. His young daughter goes to private school and swims in the pool overlooking Naples and the sea. His son is learning the business and has an arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Wife Armida has everything she could ask for, except independence and her husband’s respect. Writer/director Mario Martone (co-writing the adaptation of Eduardo De Filippo’s play with Ippolita Di Majo) sets the stage masterfully from the beginning. Arriving at the villa late one evening, Armida exits her car and is set upon by Antonio’s mastiffs. A short while later, returning from the hospital where the wounds on her breast have been sewn up less than skillfully, everyone is eager to shoot the dog responsible. But Don Antonio, proclaiming he himself will shoot the dog if, in fact, the dog was to blame, is able to twist the situation to the point where he points out that it was really his wife’s fault for arriving so late. The dog lives and Armida retreats, as always.

Don Antonio also has a live-in physician. Unable to sleep, he is dependent on Dottor Ragione for pills and counsel. When Ragione informs his boss that he will be leaving soon for New York, a long postponed trip, the Don calmly informs him that if the doctor chooses to go, then a group of the Don’s will be greeted at the airport by a group of associates. The unspoken assumption is that it’s unlikely he’ll make it into the city. Not a threat, Antonio explains; a reality of the consequences for leaving.

Like the Godfather films, Don Antonio spends his days receiving visitors who need their problems adjudicated, whether it’s the two morons who shot at each other, the man who can no longer feed his family because of the onerous interest he must pay on the small loan he took out to pay for his daughter’s operation, or, and this is the central conflict, the young man who has come to inform the Don that he will be killing his estranged father who has left him to starve.

In each case, Don Antonio metes out street justice that rarely involves physical violence but is rife with psychological pressure, complete with underlying threat. One side receives satisfaction, the other side, not so much. But no matter what, these people, all of the unworldly class upon whom he thrives, know better than to go against him. 

Massimiliano Gallo as Santaniello and Francesco Di Leva as Don Antonio in “The Mayor of Rione Sanità.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement Plus.

A far more interesting encounter, and one that is illustrative of the battle for respect that Don Antonio must wage against the bourgeoisie, both on his own behalf and that of the underclass he represents, is with Arturo Santaniello, the estranged father targeted for death by his son. Self-made, he is the now rich owner of two successful bakeries. Brought to Don Antonio’s estate by his henchmen, Santaniello listens politely to everything that Don Antonio has to say. Unswayed and unafraid, Santaniello informs his host that his son has been disowned because of many opportunities squandered and his disrespect. Santaniello will not brook interference even by so powerful a man as Don Antonio, but no one has ever dismissed Don Antonio’s offer to mediate, and this sets up the tense finale. 

This is not a brilliant film. No new ground is broken and the small episodes that make up the overall story are not even that original or intriguing. But the portrait of a powerful man who may have overreached his limits is totally compelling. It is impossible not to become enmeshed in the character of Don Antonio. It’s not that we haven’t seen him before, whether as a gangster from the hood or an Irish thug at the turn of the century. We have. But rarely will you get the opportunity to experience a performance that is as gripping and explosive as the one given by Francesco Di Leva playing the Don. You can’t stop watching Di Leva as he dominates everyone around him on the screen. His characterization is, quite literally, breathtaking. 

Other performers worth noting are Daniela Ioia as Armida who subtly conveys her hopelessness, trapped in the proverbial gilded cage, but worth less than a dog. Roberto De Francesco, the doctor, is effectively world-weary knowing that the price he’s paid for wealth was too high. The Don’s only respected counterpart is, like Armida, unable to escape the trap he actually laid for himself. And finally, Massimiliano Gallo as Santaniello, the baker, brings the film alive with the disdainful respect he shows the Don in their powerful back and forth over family matters. Aware that he has probably written his own death sentence by refusing the Don’s “help,” he is, nevertheless, uncompromising, representing the class that Don Antonio despises and yet aspires to be.

In Italian with English subtitles.

Premiering September 9 on Film Movement Plus.



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