Born to a Sicilian family with very close links to the local mafia, the young Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Impastato seems destined to join the criminal organization, until a tragedy occurs in the family and the boy begins to question his surroundings. By the early 1970s, the adult Peppino is a far cry from the expectation: having become involved with the local Communist party, he is boldly unafraid to take on any political opposition in his home town, Cinisi, even if this leads to his imprisonment. With a group of friends, he violently denounces the local mafia and its boss, Tano Badalamenti, through street manifestations, the press and the group’s radio station. Peppino’s outspoken behaviour causes frictions in the home and his father – Luigi Impastato, one of Badalamenti’s cronies – forces his son out of the family home. This does little to slow Peppino’s political zeal, however, and after the mysterious death of Luigi, and despite repeated warnings from friends and family of the danger of Badalamenti, Peppino offers his candidacy for the Proletarian Democracy Party, with ultimately tragic consequences.
Though not his first feature, having created films of varying success over the previous two decades, I cento passi brought widespread recognition to director Marco Tullio Giordana and marked a style of filmmaking which has since become his signature: that which might be labelled ‘the popular-political film’. In I cento passi, as with the television series-cum-international feature La meglio gioventù/The Best of Youth (2003) and features Quando sei nato non poui più nasconderti/Once You’re Born You Can No Longer Hide (2005) and Sanguepazzo/Wild Blood (2008), Giordana constructs the film through engagement with contemporary social and political issues matched with a fast pace, colourful mise-en-scène and popular cultural references. With an excellent script (later published by Feltrinelli, with surprising success), fine performances from the lead actors and a confident, if conventional cinematography, it is of little surprise that the film was critically acclaimed, took decent box-office takings and had success in several European film festivals. What is particularly striking, though, is Giordana’s ability to straddle several themes and approaches, combining countless genre conventions, from gangster film, to western, to family drama. It moreover cites both popular Hollywood and artistic Italian representations of the mafia, both glorified (such as The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), explicitly referenced in the costume and mise-en-scène) and antagonistic, whereby the mafia is a dangerous plague to society (see also La scrota/The Bodyguards, Ricky Tognazzi, 1993, or Gomorra/Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone, 2008).
What makes Peppino’s denunciation of the mafia outstanding is his familial link: the implication is that, were it not for the explosive murder of his uncle, mafia capo Cesare Manzella, Peppino would have inherited the family business. Yet this rupture point in the boy’s life turns him towards the local representative of the Communist Party who then, by implication through a well timed flash-forward, strongly influences the boy’s political formation. From here the film’s narrative and stylistics create a binary split between two political ideologies: the mafia hegemony and the ‘cultural communists’. The rejection of his own family leads Peppino to search for alternative support, eventually locating it in the ‘Circolo musica e cultura’ and radio station established by Peppino and his comrades. The costume, mise-en-scène and lighting prioritize the younger generation throughout, contrasting bright colours and a vocal activism to a latent violence, passivity and typically monochrome sets and costumes of Badalamenti and his mafiosi.
The soundtrack to the lives of Peppino and his friends features several well known artists and songs, from Leonard Cohen to the Animals and a striking repetition of ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’; these are almost stereotypical songs which aim to capture a feeling of youthful political revolt. In fact, throughout the film Giordana relies on a series of complex artistic references which replace more explicit political engagement in the film. In terms of poetry alone, a nod to the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky marks the flash-forward to Peppino’s adulthood, merely implying a Communist formation; Peppino’s melodramatic adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy maps the poet’s severe criticism of 14th century Florence over Peppino’s powerful denunciation of 20th century Sicily; Pier Paolo Pasolini too is explicitly cited, bearing the weight of his infamous, unyielding criticism of 1970s society and anticipating Peppino’s untimely death. Most poignant, though, is the citation of Francesco Rosi’s 1964 film Le mani sulla città/Hands Over the City, with Peppino’s accompanying statement that ‘a work of art should re-invent reality, and […] recharge it with new meaning’: the self-reflexivity here can surely be little less than Giordana’s manifesto for a new form of cinema politico.