The Riverside Studio, shortly to be closed for a three year refurbishment, hosted packed premieres for The Mafia Only Kills in the Summer and The Voice of Peppino Impastato at the end of 24 July; two films which, in different ways, reflect original, Sicilian resistance to the mafia. In contrast to the often romanticised dramatisations of the mafia, the use of satire and humour to belittle leading mafiosiwas a feature of both and partly reflects the outlook of a new generation. Both films deserve a wide audience.

Some outside Sicily will know of Peppino Impastato from Marco Tullio Giordana’s 2000 film I Cento Passi (One Hundred Steps), which told the story of Impastato’s life from his childhood in Cinisi, where he was born into a family with mafia connections, a hundred steps from mafia boss Tano Badalamenti. Impastato rejected his father’s loyalties and grew into a political activist and journalist whose campaigns on his radio station became a major threat to Badalamenti’s power, until he was found dead at the age of 30 in May 1978, blown up on a railway line, on the same day Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s body was found in Rome. His life reflected the era of the 1960s and 1970s in Italy when radical social movements provided some hope at a time of terrorism, neo-fascism and mafia power.

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Radio stations were then an important medium of protest, with various levels of influence – other examples included Radio Alice in Bologna, and Carlo Petrini’s Radio Bra – and Impastato’s Radio AUT satirised Badalamenti as ‘Sitting Bull’, and through open confrontation with the mafia boss served to counter the mafia’s hegemony over the town.

Ivan Vadori’s documentary La Voce di Impastato (The Voice of Peppino Impastato), captures this moment well, through interviews with his brother, lawyers and fellow activists, notably his Radio AUT comrade Salvo Vitale who revisited some of their antics and revealed the pressures Impastato was under.

The one voice that was missing was that of Impastato himself, but as Vadori said in the discussion after the film, if his ideas are to live on then all of us can be the voice of Impastato.

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Pierfrancesco Diliberto, or Pif, as he is known, worked on I Cento Passi, as an assistant to Giordano, having grown up in Palermo during the 1980s and the early 1990s. This was the crucial period in the recent history of the mafia, which brought escalating violence, the arrests of leading mafiosi like Toto Riina and hundreds of others in the Maxi Trial, as well as heroic resistance from Pio La Torre, Della Chiesa and others, culminating in the murders of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992; the shadow of Giulio Andreotti, Italy’s Prime Minister accused of mafia association, always lurking in the background.

His memories of that time inform La Mafia Uccide Solo D’Estate (The ‘Mafia Only Kills in the Summer), his debut film, in which he also features in the lead role. The film is compelling for its use of humour in telling what is a tragic and harrowing story. The humour in the film, in which the caricature of Andreotti looms large, manages to simultaneously explain the passage from lost innocence faced by the palermitani of Pif’s generation, as well as undermine the mafiosi and question the virtues of indifference towards them.

Questions from the audience at the Riverside. Left to right: Clare Longrigg, Pif and Ivan Vadori. Photo by Ally Clow.

Questions from the audience at the Riverside. Left to right: Clare Longrigg, Pif and Ivan Vadori. Photo by Ally Clow.

There is a sense of generational awakening in the film, borne out further perhaps by the later more audacious anti-mafia campaigns of the Addiopizzo and Libera Terra movements. In the Q and A after the film, Pif recounted his bemusement that as a child growing up in Palermo he knew mafia bosses met in a nearby bar, but it took another ten years for something to be done about it.

At the end of the film, when his character Arturo experiences the moving protests in the aftermath of the Falcone and Borsellino murders and visits the plaques commemorating the sacrifices of Pio La Torre, General Carlo Alberto Della Chiesa and others, there is not only sadness, but a sense of pride in the struggles and commitments made by ordinary citizens.

This Sicilian double bill, which sold out well in advance, was a timely send off for the Riverside Studios, which for many years hosted the annual Italian film festival and was made possible by the work of Clara Caleo Green and Francesca Marchese of Italian Cinema London.