Guiseppe Tornatore's debut proves to be the antithesis of its immediate successor and his international breakthrough film Cinema Paradiso in its harshness and avoidance of sentimentality.
While the former quality is to be expected from a gangster epic, the latter aspect is more unusual and helps establish Il camorrista as a film with its own identity distinct from the likes of The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America and the indigenous likes of Fulci's Contraband and Al Brescia's guappo films with Mario Merola.
Drawing heavily on the life of Nuova Camorra Organizzata (NCO) boss Raffaele Cutolo, the film presents a protagonist with few redeeming qualities whilst making him understandable as a product of his environment.
We are first introduced to Il Professore - as he will later become known - along with his older sister Rosaria as children, whenupon he is 'borrowed' by the local Camorra boss to smuggle a weapon through a checkpoint; a weapon which is then used to gun down a tradesman who had evidently refused to pay protection money.
Following this we jump forward to a scene where Il Professore responds to another young man groping his sister by beating him to death.
If the scene succinctly establishes hints of madness and sexual deviations - incestuous and homosexual - that will later resurface, the lack of coverage of the intermediate period proves detrimental to the film as biopic. Whereas the real Cutolo was already set on the path of the career criminal by this point, here we don't know if this is the case or not.
As such we may read Il Professore's rapid rise once in prison as down to screenwriter's fiat as much as his well-developed understanding of his fellow inmates psychology and of how these things work, especially when this is considered in relation to what seems to be a relative lack of self-awareness.
Tornatore is far more successful in portraying the prison as a thoroughly violent and corrupt place and in identifying the various players and factions involved, including its de-facto ruler Malacarne; the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, and a group of Red Brigade terrorists.
While it again helps to know a bit of background here the establishment of the rival NCO and of the central group of its members around Il Professore are also well done. The most interesting aspect here is Rosaria's involvement: initially angered at the way she has been used to convey a coded message for a hit on the Calabrese she then becomes an absolutely pivotal figure in the organisation, to further distinguish the film's milieu from that of The Godfather, with the exclusion of the women from the men's / family business, whilst also prefiguring the change in Connie Corleone's character here in The Godfather Part III.
In line with the classic 1930s gangster movies - and here we may again note the aspect of madness, as something also seen in the original Scarface - Il Professore's controlled but bloody rise to power is followed by the inevitable decline and fall.
The difference, however, is that whereas Scarface re-imagined Al Capone through the template of the Borgias and was necessarily allusive Il Professore is direct. Thus, as far as violence is concerned, the famous machine gun / calendar montage is replaced by a more Godfather-esque one of hits. As far as naming names goes, Tornatore likewise shows the extent to which the NCO and the official establishment were intertwined, whether through systems of clientism or the recruitment of the organisation to assist in combating the aforementioned Red Brigades after they kidnap a Christian Democrat politician whose confessions would be damning to everyone. (One of Il Professore's most trusted colleagues, Ciro, actually becomes sworn in as an officer in the secret service.)
Skilfully directed, shot, designed, edited and scored for the greater part, the film also benefits from an excellent central performance from Ben Gazzara and a solid supporting cast.
Though really too old to play the part despite some effective make-up work - in the scene where he beats the man to death he was a 55-year-old playing someone less than half his age - Gazzara is otherwise absolutely convincing, whether as the controlled and charismatic godlike figure of first hour and a half of the film or as the increasingly troubled and vulnerable man of the last hour.
All told, a highly impressive debut from Tornatore and a welcome counterpoint to his best known work.