Black Shirt, White Hat

One of those “if they made it up, you’d never believe it” true-life stories, CESARE MORI, a 2012 two-part Italian TV mini-series comes to American DVD, via the folks at MHz (as part of their superb International Mystery Collection) and RAI.

A genuine modern Italian semi-folk hero, Cesare Mori was a no-nonsense, incorruptible police chief (“If they kill one of my men, they kill part of me!”) in the city of Caltabellotta, ca. 1916.  Caltabellotta was a key Sicilian hub of the Mafia (then known as the Honored Society).  Mori, the Pavian real-life equivalent of John Wayne (or Gianni Wayne-a, as Ernie Kovacs might dub him) swore an allegiance to wipe the mobsters off the face of the Earth.  And he almost did it.

Mori and his beloved (but seriously infirmed) wife, Angelina (Vincent Perez, Anna Foglietta), are, on the surface, one of the most respected couples in the Sicilian province.  Underneath, it’s another story, as the duchy is honeycombed with mafioso (including the village priest).  The convenient seaside metro’s harbor provided a conduit for a myriad of nefarious activities, including drug shipments to America.

Mori and Angelina dream of having children, but her heart condition forbids it.  In a seemingly perfect act of God, Mori’s “elimination” of a Mafia bigwig leaves the gangster’s small son (Rocco Nigro) an orphan.  The Moris take him in, and a true love bond cements them (far different from the child’s parents’ overshoes-in-the-drink kind).

Mori’s success, however, is his downfall, and the powerful local factions triumphantly remove him from office and transfer the law enforcer to an ineffectual position in (no pun) Bologna.  As a final stab in the back, Saro, the boy they have come to love, is kidnapped by his biological father’s cronies.  The child escapes, yearning to be with the Moris, but misses their departure by mere minutes; his return to the new Mafia is rewarded by the boy growing up to be a numero uno assassin (Marco Mandara).  The Pirandellian irony will be challenged in a final confrontation that, again, is beyond belief.

Meanwhile, in Bologna, the years become a trial for the Moris.  The rise of fascism and Benito Mussolini take their toll.  Soon the Black Shirts target Mori and his wife with death threats.  Once again, the powers that be remove him from office.  In a fit of rage, Mori writes a scathing letter to Mussolini.  Surprisingly, Il Duce (Maurizio Donadoni), spurred by the honesty and courage of this upstart rapscallion, orders Mori to a private counsel and restores him to his former rank as Caltabellotta’s precinct of police.  Why?  Benito wants to take over the country, and not be associated with the likes of the thuggish Mafia (talk about the pot calling the kettle black shirts).  There also may have been an element of vanity involved, as photos of the actual Mori bear a striking resemblance to the Iron Prefect.  He gives the honorable crime fighter carte blanche; all Mori must do is to embrace fascism.

This Cesare Mori does, as he considers it a mere means to an end.  Names and politics mean nothing – his goal is to take the Mafia down, and, once again, he comes within a hairsbreadth of doing so.

Leaving Angelina in Bologna (where she is recovering from new, revolutionary cardiac surgery), Mori attacks his restored and empowered gig with ferocious vigor.  It is here that his fleeting relationship with the local Baroness Elena Chiaramonte (Gabriella Pession) strengthens (her titled husband was an early Mafia victim, done in by the Chiaramonte’s own “trusted” workers, led by rising psychopath Tano Cuccia).  The Baroness, snarky, gorgeous and often naked, literally throws her voluptuous body in Mori’s face (they both like Liszt, an important point as the woman comments that his music is, like themselves, the perfect combination of romance and violence).  That Mori, miles apart from his wife (and likely not carnal for years) turned this goddess down repeatedly seems (dare I say) hard to fathom, but, at least, according to this retelling of the Mori saga, actually did transpire; it’s the one false note in this otherwise magnificent series, excitingly scripted by Pietro Calderoni, Gualtiero Rossella and Nicola Rafele (from a story, based on fact, by Calderoni, Rossella and Antonio Domenici).

How Mori achieved his near obliteration of the Mafia was brilliant; he simply followed the template of the gallant knights of old – in this case, Spain’s legendary El Cid.  He cordoned off the village, banning shipments of food, water and, in a rare nod to the twentieth century, the transmission of that recent miracle of science, electricity.

The Arthurian knight theme is crucial to understanding Mori’s m.o.  Early-on, the police head’s first assistant (Adolfo Margiotta) inquires why he doesn’t embrace the new technology of cars and trucks to track criminals.  Mori’s refusal and total reliance on horse power is as simple as it is heroic.  A man or troop on horseback is far more imposing, foreboding and intimidating than driving up in an automobile.  Truth be told, this clinging to the past is in perfect tune with the Mori mythos; but, also remember that this is a period spanning the decade of 1916-26.  There was even still a wild west in parts of America.  Thus, the anachronism beautifully meshes with the Mori ideology, remarkably working until change indignantly kicks down the detective’s pre-Great War door, once and for all.

And the door-basher, in human form, is again, Benito Mussolini.  Within the reach of snuffing out the Mafia, Mori is summoned by the despot.  The Mafia’s connections have far exceeded the dictator’s original beliefs.  He now needs their money and power.  To this end, he tells the “decent” fascist that he only lives “by black and white.”  This is not realistic or acceptable, as the world is becoming ever-increasingly filled with grays.

Mori and his wife are reassigned to Rome, where he is installed as a senator, and where the couple remained till their deaths, both in 1942, and within days of each other.  We again reiterate that ancient chestnut about truth being stranger than fiction.

CESARE MORI is lavishly produced for the small-screen on a big-screen scale.  Its tapestry is spectacularly envisioned with accurate period detail, sensational photography and a tremendous music score.

But, of course, all of the above would be piffle, if it wasn’t for the acting.  A plethora of fine performances bring this bio-pic to life, leading with star Perez as Mori, and a number of other wonderful turns by the aforementioned Foglietta, Pession and Margiotta, plus Franco Trevisi, and Paolo Ricca as the frightening Tano Cuccia.

The direction by Gianni Lepre is terrific as well; the movie brings to mind the country’s classic 1960s-70s Italian dips into the fascist history pool – although leaning more toward Bertolucci than Visconti.  The widescreen photography by Gino Sgreva is stunning, as is the stereo-surround audio (in Italian, with nicely displayed English subtitles), highlighted by the bravura music by the great Pino Donnagio (with definite nods to Morricone).

The two-disc MHz DVD is a pleasure to view (especially on a big screen TV).  It’s very sharp, bristling with color, only coming up a bit short via some fleeting, grainy low light/night sequences.

This is not so much a mini-series, as it is an epic odyssey – the stuff Italians do so well.  A dazzling, sprawling historical cocktail that’s equal part Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, with a liberal dash of John Woo, CESARE MORI delivers the goods on a massive operatic level.

CESARE MORI.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16×9 anamorphic].  2.0 stereo-surround.  MHz Networks/RAI.  CAT # SKU-16810.  SRP:  $29.95.

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One thought on “Black Shirt, White Hat”

  1. Fascinating. Good operating in a miasma of Evil. Why this story not an Opera is beyond me.
    None the less, such are the dangers of Fascism. The achievement of genuine benefits to the commonweal are the raison d’etre that usher in such colosol evil. Engarde!

    Like

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