This is one of those films that both makes you glad for the existence of all manner of Italian rarities on Greek VHS and sad that the dubbed, panned and scanned presentation of them makes it unlikely that they will ever reach an audience beyond the cognoscenti.
This is the kind of thing we're dealing with here
For The Honoured Family – a better title than the on-screen The Big Family – is a powerful example of the sullo stesso filone Godfather mafia film with strong performances and direction and nicely mixture of action, suspense, intrigue and expose of the land of the lupara blast.
Some measure of the film’s capacity for surprise can be gleaned from its initial narrative. We begin with the introduction of Richard Conte and the establishment of his conflict with second-billed Raymond Pellegrin. Conte’s character, Antonio Marchesi, has recently come to Sicily from the US, whilst Pellegrin’s, Don Peppino Scalise, is longer-established. Believing that he has the support of his associates in New York, Marchesi refuses Scalise’s ‘offer’ to sell some land – at a cut-down rate, of course – and receives his reply in the form of an attack on his offices, in which his bodyguard are killed to convey to him that he had better accept.
So far, so predictable, if at the same time suggestive of the a different balance of power between old and new worlds than its US model. The same can be said of Marchesi’s over-confident reaction, as he plans a hit on Scalise. We might also read the resolution of this duel in similar fashion, as a tragic case of mistaken identity sees Marchesi kill his own brother to apparently provide extra impetus for what we assume to be a mafia war story between lighter and darker grey coded factions.
What happens next, however, is somewhat unexpected, if also helps to make sense of the role to be played by Commissario La Manna, a Sicilian born but hitherto Milan based cop.
For Scalise decides that Marchesi has had his chance and sends his executioners, played by Sal Borgese and Stelio Candelli, to eliminate his rival.
It’s an indication of the rules of the game here, that reality trumps star power, and neatly sets things up for what then emerges as the real confrontation between Scalise and La Manna to reveal the reach of the octopus’s tentacles across all levels of Sicilian society.
There could be a point about the shadowy nature of the legal system here, but it's difficult to tell
Thus we see La Manna being offered a fast-track promotion to a post back on the mainland by the local judiciary; the intimidation and murder of witnesses and innocents, including a particularly well-executed chase through an orange grove vaguely reminiscent of the caccia sequence in The Big Gundown; assorted admissions of impotence from police and civilians alike; and, perhaps most daring of all, an attack on the church for its willingness to accept dirty money. (Another nice touch here sees the Don sufficiently preoccupied with business that he closes the window on the orphans – how many orphaned through mafia activities, we wonder – whom the priest has sing a song in his honour.)
Another element that stands out is the way the filmmakers deal with the time-honoured car bomb: La Manna gets into his car and puts his key in the ignition. There’s a close-up and a pause, then a cut to a long shot, but no explosion. This is not to say it’s an impossibility, more that such a dramatic demonstration of power seems uncalled for at this stage in the narrative.
Director and co-writer Tonino Ricci also makes good use of the rural and urban landscapes of Sicily, with the atmosphere of place further enhanced by Bruno Nicolai’s score in which the marranzanu or ‘Jews harp’ is used prominently.
Recommended, though one also hopes that a restored DVD release will emerge soon to allow for a better recognition of the direction, cinematography and production design.