Giovanni Virgilio’s second feature film Malarazza, set in his hometown of Catania, explores the ramifications and gradual self-destruction of a family entrenched in the mafia. At its center are Rosaria, a young woman married to Tommaso Malarazza, a lowly would-be crime boss, and their teenage son Antonio, who seems promising but is getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. At home Rosaria is a victim of verbal and physical abuse, and her only reprieves are going to work and visiting her brother Franco, who in turn has his own secrets.
Their surname, Malarazza, literally translates to “bad race,” reflective of the inescapable destiny, as if by birthright, burdening the family. Tommaso’s father had been the boss of the local mafia chapter, but as Tommaso became of age, he was passed up in favor of Pietro, who, decades later, he still has to answer to. Being denied as a young man of the power status Tommaso believes to be rightfully his, therefore falling short from his prospects, drives him to drink and manifest his anger into abuse and control within his home, the only space where he can claim authority.
The broader power structure, outside the family unit, is largely up for grabs in their setting: the city of Catania, in the Librino and San Berillo districts. It’s often mentioned that the police are all-but-absent, creating a void where organized crime can swoop in and take control in lieu of another institution. This is the larger story of how the mafia grew within Sicily, in general, and here in Catania it’s specific to areas that once were pegged for reinvestment and redevelopment, only to be abandoned by the state and left for the taking. It’s into this new structure that Antonio, the Malarazza’s teenage son, so easily finds his place in a world with few other options.
San Berillo is also known as a red-light district, whose streets are lined by drug deals and prostitutes. Franco, Rosaria’s brother, is among them, having been forced to run away from home at a young age, and the only option for a young gay man at that time was to walk the streets. Among his clients include Pietro, the head of the Malarazza crime family, who is enamored with him. Franco and Rosaria, brother and sister, are not born into the mafia, but it feels inevitable that they become entrenched within it.
The Cantanese setting also naturally includes imagery of Sant’Agata (St. Agatha), the patron saint and namesake of Catania’s Duomo. As a young woman, Agata was tortured for refusing to marry an older Roman prefect, but she held firm and never renounced her Christian faith, eventually becoming a martyr. Today she is the patron saint for survivors of rape and violence against women, no doubt a parallel for Rosaria, herself a victim of the abusive Tommaso.
The film’s final shot takes place on the coast, at the Porto di Catania, after Rosaria meets her ultimate defeat: the crushing realization of the loss of her son, hours after the two were supposed to flee the city for a new life in Genova. The last image is of the sea, with an open horizon and calm waters ahead, but lower in the frame are the waves forcefully pushing downward, towards the viewer. The bright future within view is simply unattainable.
While the ties of family, both biological and chosen, weigh down upon the film’s characters, it feels somewhat a stretch tonally that there are no other options available to them within Catania. Living in the second-largest city in Sicily, with a robust economy and hosting the main university of Sicily, it’s hard to make sense of why Rosaria, Antonio, and Franco don’t take another path. Perhaps their entrenchment within a mafia family has given them psychological blinders, and they are unaware or even unwilling, to take in the legitimate pursuits their city has to offer.
Malarazza is by no means a perfect film, an unsteady blend of melodrama and crime thriller, with truly unexpected musical performances peppered throughout, but its looming sense of doom and inevitability, paired with its thorough textual connections to the city of Catania, make this an intriguing, culturally layered movie to explore.
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