Thursday, February 27, 2014

IL GRANDE CINEMA DI MARIO MEROLA - DVD REVIEW PART 2


Following Mario Merola’s le sceneggiate which took up the first part of Raro Video’s box set, this second section centres its attention on his more familiar and, quite frankly, infinitely more digestible polizieschi efforts.

NAPOLI… SERENATA CALIBRO 9 (1978) begins with familiar scenes of cigarette smuggling as typical, but lively music highlighted by disco cues plays on the soundtrack.  Don Salvatore Savastano (Mario Merola) is a prosperous cigarette smuggler about to celebrate his son’s First Communion.  At the obligatory family gathering, Merola sings about the familiar “sounds of mandolins” and love that echo throughout Naples but, before he can even finish, a group of hooded men pull off a robbery where his wife and child are gunned down.  The leader of the group then exits the premises by executing a back flip out of a second floor window and, spectacularly, lands on both feet unharmed.  Without the help of the police, Don Salvatore hunts for these enterprising punks with the help of Gennarino (Marco Girondino), an orphaned “street urchin” that soon takes the place of his murdered son.

Definitely more engaging than his sceneggiate efforts, NAPOLI has all the required elements of any solid poliziesco; armed robbery; shootouts; and car chases are just a few of the action staples liberally dispersed throughout the fast-moving narrative.  Along the way, he befriends Maili (Ria de Simone), who works at a pawnshop that fences stolen jewelry and, in a typically contrived moment, she happens to be Antonio’s (Nick Jordan) fiancé, the acrobatic gunman from the robbery.  Of course, Maili decides to help Don Salvatore, but before she can spill the beans on her ex, she is messily executed.  Like most of Merola’s efforts, the film also includes all the unavoidable clichés that personify the sceneggiata napoletana including a token kid that figures prominently and, during a typically sappy moment, Gennarino even moves into Don Salvatore’s house to take the place of his murdered son.  In a hilarious bit of editing, Don Salvatore’s relentless quest for revenge is recollected through numerous slow-motion montages of Antonio’s back flip out of that second floor window, which is repeated over and over and must have been shot from every conceivable angle.  Picturesque locales accompanied by further sounds of mandolins also add local flavour but, unlike the sceneggiate, the film has enough action to satisfy most Italian crime fans including a rather spectacular high-speed boat chase, which concludes with a messy explosion thanks to a trusty flare gun.  It’s a damn fine poliziesco and one of the highlights in this box set. 

Next up, NAPOLI PALERMO NEW YORK IL TRIANGOLO DELLA CAMORRA (1982) was Merola’s last polizieschi before he embarked on the more restrained sceneggiate that dominated the rest of his career.  A series of murders within the Naples underworld start things rolling, highlighted by shoddy inserts of a .38 revolver against a black background that prefigures each death.  This time, Merola stars as Don Gennaro Savarese, the owner of a popular restaurant who personally entertains his patrons with the occasional song.  When Inspector Galante (Howard Ross) pays him a visit in relation to the murders, it’s clear that Don Gennaro once had influential mob connections.  During a big party – where Merola demonstrates his vocal talents yet again – to celebrate Don Raffaele’s (Massimo Mollica) move to New York, a group of masked men rob everyone and, when the lights suddenly go out, Salvatore’s wife (Liana Trouche) is accidentally killed.  Through the course of the film, Don Gennaro tries to hunt down his wife’s killers and realizes that the quest for power knows no bounds, even when his friends are concerned.

Virtually interchangeable in terms of the general scenario to NAPOLI… SERENATA CALIBRO 9, IL TRIANGOLO DELLA CAMORRA isn’t as clear-cut in its revenge scenario as Don Gennaro unravels numerous plot twists and double crosses. More songs and talky melodrama generally preempt the minimalist action, but surprisingly, the film manages to sustain interest due to Merola’s relentless and expansive quest for revenge.  Even though it’s quite obvious who the real perpetrator is behind all the murder and mayhem, it’s actually fairly engaging watching Merola violently interrogating and shooting his way through the colourful cast, which also includes spaghetti western vet Nello Pazzafini.  The authentic Palermo and New York locations are also a nice bonus, which also adds a touch of realism to the proceedings as Merola mingles with the locals hunting for information.
Director Alfonso Brescia (seated second from left) enjoying an impromptu canzone courtesy of signor Merola.

Produced alongside one of Merola’s more noteworthy films The NEW GODFATHERS (1979 - available separately on the Cecchi Gori label), NAPOLI… LA CAMORRA SFIDA, LA CITTÀ RISPONDE is yet another highlight in this box set.  Focusing on the protection rackets that continue to flourish throughout Naples to this very day, local businessmen and retailers are threatened by a violent new group led by Antonio Sabato.  Merola stars as Francesco Gargiulo, a wealthy dockland owner whose warehouse is bombed when he refuses to pay.  When his son Marco (Walter Ricciardi) is beaten and his girlfriend (Sabrina Siani) raped, Marco foolishly snaps a few photos of Sabato extorting money, which sends Sabato to prison.  In spite of this, Sabato’s duplicitous lawyer (Rik Battaglia) gets him out of jail, enabling him to exact his revenge, kidnapping and drugging Marco, which leaves him screaming and squirming in a straight jacket at the local lunatic asylum.  This sends Francesco over the edge, so he assembles all the beleaguered retailers to stage an all out war against Sabato and his crew.
Metting out justice in NAPOLI... LA CAMORRA SFIDA LA CITTA RISPONDE.

Unlike many of the other films in this set, this is more of a straightforward crime yarn without any of the frivolous child actors, smidgens of comedy or multiple songs that slow down the other films.  This is a fine polizieschi and, despite the lack of an English language track, the film has enough action to satisfy any jaded Italian crime film palette.  The last twenty minutes is an extended shootout with plentiful shotgun blasts and bloody squibs, which eventually migrates to a desolate crypt filled with thousands of skulls and bones.  Veering into the realm of horror, the eerie music becomes increasingly bizarre and moody with wails and moans that echo throughout the crypt as gangsters wipe each other out with blood spattering glee.  It’s an amazing end to a solid, fast-paced and, unfortunately, underrated little crime flick, which would make a good double-bill with Enzo G. Castellari’s terrific The BIG RACKET (1977), another film that deals with the protection rackets.

Rounding out this set is L’ULTIMO GUAPPO, the first and most successful collaboration between Merola and Brescia.  When the respected Don Francesco Aliprandi (Mario Merola) has an altercation at the local markets with his rival Don Pasquale De Cillio (Luciano Catenacci), a meeting is organized later that night in the city.  In order to protect his territory, Francesco prepares to attend the meeting “armed to the teeth” but, when his young son Roberto is hit by a car and hospitalized, Francesco gives up his power in order to care for his ailing son.  Years pass and Pasquale is now running the lucrative cigarette smuggling operation while Francesco is doing menial work caring for his family.  When Roberto (Walter Ricciardi), now a grown man, meets Pasquale at a ritzy nightclub while on a date with his new girlfriend (Sonia Viviani), he offers him a job in his operation.  However, when Roberto’s life is threatened, Francesco has one last stand off with Pasquale.
Mario Merola in L'ULTIMO GUAPPO

Despite the Naples underworld serving as backdrop, this has more in common with Merola’s sceneggiate than your typical crime flick.  Overly talky, physical action and violence is kept to a bare minimum and doesn’t really occur until well past the 60-minute mark when Roberto is ordered to be executed.  Accentuating family drama over standard action, the usual sceneggiata themes, overwrought as they may be, are handled with a panache that is undeniable.  The subsequent action scenes also work surprisingly well during an extended boat chase that ends on the docks as Merola revels in desperation; kicking, punching and shooting his way through most of Pasquale’s crew.  Merola definitely looks comfortable strolling through the streets of Naples and, rather surprisingly, he doesn’t contribute an on-screen song.  Although one of his canzones is heard on the soundtrack during another extended sequence as Brescia’s camera prowls the city streets, which again demonstrates Merola’s obvious love for Naples. 
 
Like the previous entries in this set, picture quality is merely adequate and tends to vary from film to film.  NAPOLI PALERMO NEW YORK IL TRIANGOLO DELLA CAMORRA is fullscreen and looks to be taken from an average VHS tape.  It’s certainly watchable, but not much else.  Thankfully, the other three films fare much better with L’ULTIMO GUAPPO looking particular good and, incidentally, it’s the only film presented in 16x9.  The other two films are also widescreen but not enhanced for 16x9 while the transfers themselves are a notch above their standard VHS counterparts, which were long time staples at most North American ethnic video stores back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.  Order this box set here.  Lastly, Raro Video subsequently released NAPOLI… SERENATA CALIBRO 9 separately in the latter part of 2007 in the same transfer, but with the added bonus of English subtitles.  You can order it here.

Thanks to Mike Ferguson for the generous use of his rare Italian newspaper ads.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

IL GRANDE CINEMA DI MARIO MEROLA - DVD REVIEW PART 1


Following the death of Mario Merola on the 12th of November 2006, Raro Video, in conjunction with 01 Distribution, released a 6-disc box set highlighting his many collaborations with director Alfonso Brescia.  Merola was an Italian crooner that was immensely popular throughout Naples and the rest of Italy, and in the early ‘70s, he ventured off the stage and onto the big screen.  His first film came in 1973 with Ettore M. Fizzarotti’s rarely seen and, apparently poorly received, crime film SGARRO ALLA CAMORRA.  However, it wasn’t until Alfonso Brescia’s L’ULTIMO GUAPPO (1978) that Merola’s career, for lack of a better word, began to take shape.  Merola continued to work steadily with Brescia for the next few years churning out both sceneggiate (dramas) and polizieschi films, but he also took time to work with other, more well respected directors such as Umberto Lenzi on FROM CORLEONE TO BROOKLYN (1979) and Stelvio Massi on HUNTED CITY (1979).  
Mario Merola (left) in Ettore M. Fizzarotti's SGARRO ALLA CAMORRA (1973).
This box set represents exactly half of the Merola/Brescia collaborations and, thankfully, four out of the six films are the much-preferred polizieschi or poliziesco italiano.  As most readers of this blog are undoubtedly well versed with Italian crime films, some brief facts about the rarely talked about sceneggiata or cinema Napoletana genre is definitely in order.  These films were rarely screened outside Italy and featured highly dramatized scenarios usually based on traditional Neapolitan theatre, which were set or featured the Neapolitan underworld.  Typically, they revolved around love, honour and/or betrayal and, more often than not, contained one or more appropriately heart-wrenching ballads performed by the lead.  At first, they were rarely screened outside of Naples but, by the mid ‘70s and thanks to the popularity of Merola and the re-release of an earlier sceneggiata from 1950 (more on that later), they began to receive a much larger audience throughout Italy.  One of the first films released during this revival was Tiziano Longo’s ONORE E GUAPPARIA (1977) with fellow crooner and box office competitor Pino Mauro, but it was the success of Alfonso Brescia’s L’ ULTIMO GUAPPO (1978) that really cemented the success of these regional crime-themed sceneggiate and the success of Mario Merola in particular.  Variety reported on the sudden popularity of Neapolitan cinema in January 1979.  They wrote: “Cigarette smugglers, the backbone of Naples’ sagging economy, are fast becoming the new antiheroes of Neapolitan cinema.  A rash of films – often starring the real life guappi (tough guys) of the local underground or the camorra (local Mafia) – are boxoffice hits in a city where unemployment, crime and human misery are rampant.”
Italian newspaper ad courtesy of Mike Ferguson.
In ZAPPATORE (1980 – which roughly translates to “ditchdigger”), the first film in this box set, Merola stars as Francesco Esposito (Merola), a lowly but hard-working farmer who, along with his wife Maddalena, (Regina Bianchi) worked all their life to put their son Mario (Gerardo Amato) through law school.  In celebration of Mario’s recent graduation and new job at a law firm in Naples, his parents throw a big feast; sort of a poverty row GODFATHER-styled opening as Francesco “treats” his guests to the obligatory canzone.  Once in Naples, Mario is relegated to the archives filing papers and other such menial labour, which isn’t exactly what he had envisioned, that is until Nancy (Mara Venier), his new American girlfriend (Mara Venier), introduces him to her business savvy father (Alberto Farnese) and offers him a job in New York.  When Mario decides to break the news to his family and introduce Nancy’s affluent parents, he becomes increasingly hostile and even embarrassed with his family’s rather humble lifestyle and their disagreement of his plans.  This leaves Francesco furious and his mother bed-ridden while Nancy’s father quips, “It’s all very dramatic!”  It only gets worse for Francesco as creditors continually harass him and even the local Don (Rik Battaglia) tries to frame him for a murder in the hopes of sneakily obtaining his land.  Francesco eventually clears his name and also ensures that Mario returns to Italy and stops alienating his one and only true family. 

Based on a popular ballad, this was actually adapted for the screen a couple of times before, once in 1930 by Gustavo Serena (who also played the zappatore) and then again in 1950.  The latter film was actually re-released by its producer Roberto Amoroso sometime in 1976 and became a surprisingly big hit throughout Naples.  This inevitably became one of the catalysts that ensured the future success of sceneggiate and typical Italian crime films that also featured elements of Neapolitan theatre, which Variety quoted in January 1979 as “Neapolitan westerns”.  In this most recent attempt, Merola carries the entire film and does an adequate enough job creating the necessary pathos that the highly dramatized story requires; his talents are definitely on display during the climatic and requisite canzone at a swanky New York City nightclub.  Although it takes place in Naples and even migrates to New York, those looking for the usual Italian crime staples will be sorely disappointed. The brief scenes that involve the local mafia are definitely some of the highlights, but this is just one little facet of what is essentially a tearjerker with a number of prominent Italian actors.  Merely perfunctory but, as far as sceneggiate are concerned, it’s actually a better example of its kind. 
Mario Merola as the "zappatore".
In the second and, lesser sceneggiata, I FIGLI… SÒ PEZZI É CORE (roughly translating to “Son… My Heart is Broken”) this is more of the same stuff highlighting the importance of family.  This time Merola stars as Tommaso Mafattone, a humble crooner who, along with his wife Matilda (Annamaria Ackermann) pushes his huge organ grinder (sans monkey) through the poorer districts of Naples.  This enables Merola to sing incessantly through the city streets as his wife collects coins, which people throw from their windows as payment for his “entertainment”.  In one such scene, his wife passes out but it’s soon revealed that she is pregnant and Tommaso is naturally ecstatic.  However, the baby dies during birth and, in a rather contrived moment, Tommaso conveniently buys a newborn from a dancer at the very same hospital.  Of course, his wife is oblivious to the whole affair while she recuperates.  As his “son” Felicello (Michele Esposito) grows older, Tommaso takes a job at the docks in the hopes of obtaining a bigger paycheck, but he has difficulty securing permanent work.  Then his wife gets sick and the real father (Ivan Rassimov) of Felicello comes looking for him…


You can pretty much imagine where this film is going, so when Merola begins to sing about his unfortunate plight during the climatic scene, you’re not surprised.  Of course, like ZAPPATORE, it’s all highly dramatized and over-the-top as most of the principal cast gather around, sob and loving adore signor Merola and his sniveling kid.  The film doesn’t offer much for North American audiences and, unlike the first film, I FIGLI unfolds primarily within his meager apartment block as tenants bicker and get together for a number of social gatherings, which in non-translated Italian is a fairly difficult and tedious viewing experience.  On a positive note, Merola and the filmmakers manage to capture the “real” city of Naples with a verisimilitude that, Merola no doubt, was very well aware of, accentuating both the poverty and beauty of his favourite city.
A visibly distraught Merola during the climatic canzone from I FIGLI... SO PEZZI E CORE.


The pair of sceneggiate represented in the set from Raro Video is certainly nothing to write home about in terms of visual presentations.  Both films have rather smudgy picture quality indicative of their VHS origins and even include some minor dropouts and occasional colour fluctuations and, in the case of ZAPPATORE, its also presented fullscreen.  I FIGLI on the other hand is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio without 16x9 enhancement and looks marginally sharper.

In Part 2 of “Il Grande Cinema di Mario Merola”, we’ll take a look at the polizieschi films that take up the rest of this box set.