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filmcoverThe 2000 release of the first compilation of original Mafia songs ever to be published, „Il canto di malavita – La musica della Mafia“ marked a break with the media’s habituated portrayal of the Italian Mafia: the songs were wonderful, the texts and their delivery by Calabrian singers heartrending, but the ›canti di malavita‹ triggered widespread consternation, having so little in common with the Mafia’s popular prototypes, the latter being either that of the “cancerous growth”, the “criminal octopus” – or modern myth’s “cool and dignified” version depicted in films like The Godfather. The idea of an indigenous Mafia culture, growing in songs, dances and rituals for over the past 150 years was a disturbing insight for many listeners.

Ten years ago, the release was followed by an immense echo in the features sections of Europe’s leading papers– from the London Times, Nouvel Observateur, Der Spiegel to La Repubblica, hardly any neglected to add their own views and new dimensions to the old story. Irritatingly enough, the songs of the ’Ndranghetà turned out to be a highly effective publicity campaign for the reputed “Mafia province” of Calabria, drawing more media attention to the tip of Italy’s boot than any other event in the first decade of the new millennium. 

Francesco Sbano’s documentary, »Uomini d’Onore – Men of Honour« picks up on this new awareness: whether in our belief or denial, in support or opposition – this culture does exist, and there are victims of the ’Ndranghetà that, again, do not fit the mold of the world’s perception of Calabria: the people of the small town of San Luca in the province’s south, who grow up and lead their lives in the shadow of the ’Ndranghetà. Fracesco Sbano brings their fate into focus by portraying a society under the burden of an inherent stigma: born in San Luca, one is automatically a potential Mafioso. Mr. Sbano’s vehement partisanship is a courageous stance that takes a good measure of conviction – and the will to withstand harsh criticism, for example when he uses images of children at play to drive home the reality of stigmatization.

The invisible divide between “us” and “them” has been the leitmotif of Sbano’s journalistic work for over decades, dealing with how this line is defined in his home country of Italy and in opposition to the simplicity of good vs. bad. In brief, he invites those who take a moralist stance to rethink their views and question how valid these are, or if they may be based on the naïve longing for a simple world order.

Whether he will succeed remains questionable. What is certain is that his documentary and meanwhile three CD compilations with Mafia songs make a discussion of the uncomfortable existence of a Mafia culture possible in the first place – primarily due to the compelling testimonial to this culture depicted entirely in original footage and recordings. Sbano managed to win over former Mafia members, fugitive Latitante in the hills of Aspromonte and even one Mafia boss for the film. As opposed to sensational TV documentaries, Sbano simply lets them speak for themselves. Particularly in the last third of the documentary, when the content becomes increasingly shocking, he abstains almost completely from comments.

The haunting climax of »Uomini d’Onore« is the footage of an initiation ceremony of a new Mafia member. While perhaps distasteful, it is anything but sensational – but rather a social reality, be it the rough reality of a parallel society. 

Max Dax