Sicilian Girl explores the fall of the Mafia

Is the film worthy of the story?

That is the question that must be asked, and answered, about The Sicilian Girl ­— and every other film based on a true story. After all, fiction isn’t fiction when the characters are real. But let’s save the answer until I’m done rambling.

The Sicilian Girl is based on the true story behind the downfall of the Sicilian Mafia in the early 1990s. Anyone familiar with the time period knows that the downfall was as grotesque as it was bloody, and a time when the violence hinted at by so many Hollywood films was an ugly reality.

Some government authorities, prosecutors and  their family members were intimidated, tortured, brutalized and ultimately killed by the Mafia, who tried to stave off the not-so-inevitable. The Mafia eventually went down but it dragged many poor souls as its centuries-old charade collapsed on its head.

Among the persecuted was Rita Atria (Veronica D’Agostino), the 17-year-old informant whose testimony is largely considered responsible for bringing down the Cosa Nostra. Her diaries — kept since her father’s death — were the lynchpin of the prosecution’s case against the Mafia, revealing the complicated web of lies and deceit that bound the Mafia together.

Her story is one of confrontation and loss as she seeks to avenge the murders of her father and her eldest brother, both of whom were killed by the order of the reigning Don Salvo (Mario Pupella). This is the motivation for her diaries, written with the knowledge that they would one day see the light in a court of law.

Revenge, however, is hardly that simple. Her father was a mob boss, killed for refusing to enter the drug trade. Her brother was his heir, bred for the bloody responsibilities of leadership, killed just as he emerged as a threat to the status quo.

Thus, to avenge her father and brother’s deaths, she must confront and accept the fact that they were as evil as the people who killed them, just as hateful as the men she dedicated her life to defeating. Italy has long been plagued by revenge murders, leaving many generations lost. Rita must break this chain and shift her banner from that of revenge to that of justice.

It is a classic conflict, one that emerges slowly and beautifully. And the complexity grows along with Rita. At first it is simple; it is the perspective of a young girl. But as she matures, the fullness of the reality emerges, making The Sicilian Girl a film that proves to be much more than it first appears. That is a rarity in film and it is engrossing to watch.

Many pinnacle sequences stand out as well, particularly the murder of Rita’s father, Don Michele (Marcello Mazzarella). Shivers run down your spine as you see him killed in the broad daylight of a piazza as 12-year-old Rita looks on. She cries for help, and no one answers. She is forced to leave her father’s body as his blood snakes its way across the piazza’s white bricks.

If only the cast were as solid.

Indeed, they are The Sicilian Girl’s Achilles’ heel, turning in a series of workman-like yet unremarkable performances.

The chief culprit is D’Agostino. It’s not a bad performance per se, but there is little to praise. Her portrayal of Rita is an appropriate mix of fear, defiance and immaturity, but she fails to reach the depth that would make her character shine. With a young female protagonist such as this one, a movie is supposed to evoke conflicting emotions. Namely, you’re supposed to see the strength that makes it possible for her to succeed while also sensing the vulnerability that allows for the possibility of failure. You know she can succeed, but will she?

D’Agostino fails to achieve this, and her character is less dynamic for it. Roles such as Rita are like par 5s in golf — you’re supposed to birdie them. She pars it to the film’s detriment.

Indeed, only Mazzarella stands out among the cast. He is only on the screen for a few minutes, but his presence resonates throughout the film. His portrayal of Don Michele is an exquisite mix of kindness and humor that is tinged with the sternness of a Mafia don. You see both the killer and the father — the man a young girl might idolize and the man who orders men to their graves.

So, is the film worthy of the story? I’d say yes, but barely. The performances weigh the film down, but do not stand in its way. The filmmaking is solid, and the beach scenes are especially exquisite. The narrative is a bit slow to start, but the film hits its stride about one-third of the way in. The Sicilian Girl could have been a contender. Instead, it is merely another addition to the Mafia genre.

Sam Colen is a junior majoring in economics/mathematics. His column, “O’ Lucky Critic,” runs Fridays.