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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Interview: Pierfrancesco Diliberto- Cinematic Crusader

When most Americans think of the mafia, images of stereotypical figures like those we often see on television and in the movies come to mind. However, those images are far from the everyday reality that Italians, Sicilians in particular, have endured for decades. Unprecedented violence, which plagued the streets of Palermo during the '80s and '90s led to a groundbreaking anti-mafia movementFrom national activists like Rita Borsellino, who lost her brother, Paolo Borsellinoto a 1992 car bombing to journalist Roberto Saviano, whose writings have exposed the organized crime ring, Camorra, Italians are slowly but surely reclaiming their cities. Italy’s filmmakers are reflecting this anti-mafia movement in their work and sending a message to criminals and to those who stereotype Italians as having to do with the Mafia. As Italian Americans, we are all too familiar with those stereotypes.  

A scene from I cento passi
Popular films like Marco Tullio Giordana’s I cento Passi, the true story of Peppino Impastato, a young activist who opposed the Mafia in Palermo and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah which is based on the book by Roberto Saviano speak to the Mafia’s local and far-reaching corruption. In both films, we see the destruction caused by the Mafia and people that are fed up and finally take a stand. One recent film that has been huge hit in Italy and is winning over festival audiences on this side of the Atlantic is La mafia uccide solo d’estate (The Mafia Only Kills in the Summer). The director, Pierfrancesco Diliberto, better known as PIF, is a Palermo native who grew up right in the middle of some of the deadliest Mafia attacks in recent history 

La mafia uccide solo d'estate
Diliberto’s father is a film producer in Sicily, so he grew up surrounded by movie sets and production. After high school, he decided to pass on college and instead took some media courses in London. Upon his return to Italy, he accepted a position as a writer for the television program Candid & Video Show, a comedy program filled with practical jokes and antics. Shortly after joining the writing team, he was promoted to a correspondent. Youngsters and teenagers across Italy became enamored with his humor and humility, and he has remained in front of the camera ever since. In 2007, he became a VJ on MTV Italy and four years later, started his own show Il testimone Vip, a magazine-format featuring in-depth profiles of celebrities, political figures and hot topics in Italian culture.

With his latest project and first feature film, Diliberto presents a unique portrait of Palermo’s tormented Mafia years during the early 90’s. Told from the point of view of the city’s residents, the story focuses on a child that innocently looks up to the political leaders of his country until he begins to understand the corruption by witnessing the violence with his own eyes. The film concludes with this child as an adult, taking his own son around Palermo and showing him the monuments built in honor of the innocent people who lost their lives.

The film was in the lineup of this year’s edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at Lincoln Center in New York City. Diliberto presented the film and sat down with me to talk about the inspiration behind his work.

With PIF in NYC, 2014
How has growing up in Palermo influenced your work as a filmmaker?
Well here I was growing up in the midst of this huge Mafia war with the Corleone clan that came down to Palermo everyday. There were like two or three murders taking place and me- no trauma whatsoever. I asked myself why and when I looked at the pictures from those years and the film and news clips, I realize that it was because my parents shielded us from this. They did not deny the existence of the Mafia but they denied that it was a danger to us. So we grew up sort ofhale and hearty while journalists and judges were saying the Mafia did indeed exist but it could be defeated. So. I grew up in a kind of parallel world.

What about the beauty of Sicily, the poetry of Sicily, not just the Mafia?
When you grow up there, you don’t really realize how lucky you are. And now that I have lived in Milan and Rome, every time I go back, I have to go to Mondello Beach in Palermo. But when you’re born there and growing up, you don’t realize how lucky you are and how beautiful it is.

Your father is a director. Did you work with him when you were a child? Were you his apprentice?
In the beginning, yes. He had a production house in Palermo and in the early '80s, I used to play with all of the equipment and make short films. That was my school. He used to take me onto the set. So I never really wondered what I would do when I grew up, but I kind of took for granted that I would be behind the camera, not in front of it.

You worked with Marco Tullio Giordana on I cento passi, which was a huge hit. What did you learn from that experience?
It was a low budget film. It was a story that wasn’t very well-known, the story of Impastato. But at the time, I didn’t realize that “I cento passi” would become such a big film. It’s a film that’s shown in all Italian schools. It’s a film of social denunciation, a film of great courage. I only realized this later. But what’s also really nice is that a lot of the people that I worked with, including the director of cinematography, the production designer and even some of the actors are proud that I went from being the little slave on the set to a full-fledged director myself.

A scene from La mafia uccide solo d'estate
noticed that you really focused on the plights of the people in Palermo and the victims who had to suffer through all the violence, where many Mafia films glorify the mystery and incarceration of the Mafia and focus rather on them and the prosecutors. Yours was a very humbling portrait of the people and the chaos and fear they were forced to endure while all this violence was taking place in their own backyards.
I think in Italy, we’ve been very good at telling the story of the Mafia to the world but what we forgot to tell was the story of the heroes that fought against the Mafia, incredibly courageous men. Back then, you had to be completely out of your mind to think that you could fight the Mafia. The corruption was so pervasive. For example, until the '90s, the former prime ministerof Italy, Giulio Andreotti was in collusion with the Mafia. I’m not just saying this. He was found guilty in a court sentence. So, as I said we’ve been very good at telling the Mafia’s story. I think it’s a very serious problem that we haven’t told the story of the anti-mafia movement. Back in the '80s, I can still remember when we went on class trips to other parts of Italy and my schoolmates were almost ashamed of being from Palermo because everyone associated us so closely with the Mafia and no one instead had told us about the anti-mafia movement. So when it was my turn to tell the story, I wanted to tell this story that hadn’t been told.

Today, is there still a mafia presence in Palermo?
Today, much less. There’s more of a mafia presence in Calabria. The Sicilian mafia still exists today and it’s still dangerous. It’s still influential but it’s much less powerful than it used to be. One of the biggest dangers, one of the biggest organized crime syndicates that we have today is theNdrangheta from Calabria. Many of the Sicilian bosses are either dead or in prison. And in saying this, I want to add something- that it’s really not true that things can never change, and in Sicily, people are fond of quoting the novel by GiuseppeTomasi , Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). There’s this great sentence that states how things have to change in order for nothing to change. The truth is that we didn’t want to change and all the author did was give an intellectual allure to what was actually a kind of laziness. For example, they say that in Palermo, you always have to pay the pizzo, which is protection money. I shot the film in Palermo for four weeks and I didn’t have to pay any pizzo. There are 800 shopkeepers that don’t pay for any protection. Even some of the Mafia turncoats have said that when they see a sign in a store that says “Addio Pizzo” (Goodbye Pizzo), they are not going to bother them because they know it’s just going to be trouble for them. So it’s not true that things don’t change. They change too slowly and the cost is much too high but we really have to end this sort of nightmare thinking that things can never change.

Watch a clip from our interview...

What do you think of the Mafia movies in America?
Well let’s face it, it’s always more interesting to talk about evil. But looking at American movies, the style of the Mafia is really not the style of the Sicilian Mafia. It’s another world. It’svery fascinating in its own way. In fact, when the police sequestered the wedding movies from Sicilian Mafia families, they found more often than not that the music that was used was the music from The Godfather. The customs and habits of the Sicilian mafia are completely different. For example, this idea that the Mafioso would walk around with his lover or mistress on his arm.. No Sicilian Mafioso would ever do that. He might have a mistress but he’d never talk about it. He’d never show her in public and at night he goes home to his wife. So it’s completely another world. Maybe the world of the Sicilian Mafia is less cool and less sexy. Coppola’s The Godfather is without a doubt a masterpiece but it’s an idea of a Mafia that couldn’t be more different from what the Sicilian Mafia is. But this is a problem however, not so much of America, but for the Europeans, especially for the northern Europeans who need to understand what the Mafia really is. And the Italian Mafia exploits the ignorance of the European police, which doesn’t understand the reality and exploits this ignorance to continue the drug trafficking and other kind of dirty business in which the Mafia operates and therefore are able to combat it more effectively. The northern Europeans really don’t and this hampers their efforts. They don’t have the legislation to combat trans-international organized crime and they have a much more folkloristic, Godfather-type view of the mafia to the extent that when you meet someone and they ask, where are you from? AndI say Sicily, and they say, Oh Mafia, with a big smile on their face like the Mafia is something exotic and folkloristic but it’s not.

Watch a clip from my documentary Return to Lucania in which Diliberto talks about the reason for Sicilian organized crime members emigrating to America.

Both activists and filmmakers have made a lot of progress in their mission to combat the corruption of the Mafia. There is still a lot of work to be done in order for future generations to live in a peaceful society without the corruption of organized crime. Filmmakers like Pierfrancesco Diliberto, Marco Tullio Giordana and Matteo Garrone, just to name a few, are making sure that future generations understand the dangers and complications of organized crime in their country.

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