Two Italian directors, both Oscar winners, took opposite approaches in their movies about murderous regimes. Bernardo Bertolucci transformed the rise and fall of Italian Fascism into a sublime tragedy in “The Conformist” (1970). Roberto Benigni turned the Holocaust into broad comedy and bathos in “Life Is Beautiful” (1997). In his first film, “The Mafia Kills Only in Summer,” Italian TV personality and satirist Pierfrancesco “Pif” Diliberto tries to combine both strategies to tell an autobiographical coming-of-age story set during the Mafia reign of terror in Palermo, Sicily, from the 1970s to ’80s.
It’s an awkward balancing act. The result is more Benigni than Bertolucci, and though Diliberto achieves moments of poignancy and touches on insightful psychological truths, it doesn’t look like he’ll be winning any Oscars soon.
His first dubious tactic is the inevitable, jocular voice-over narrative as the adult Arturo (Diliberto) relates the goofball adventures of his younger self (Alex Bisconti). Perhaps had Diliberto not included this flip commentary, young Arturo might have kept his childish point of view intact. Instead, his desperate crush on Flora (Ginevra Antona), the prettiest girl in his class, is dismissed as silly kid’s stuff.
Diliberto has more success depicting the deceptions employed by adults to keep their children, and themselves, in the dark about undeniable evil. With every Mafia murder reported, the grown-ups disingenuously attribute the motive to disputes over women. Given this apparent tendency for romance to end fatally, Arturo fears that his love for Flora might be endangering his life. The corrupt but endearing Fra Giacinto (Ninni Bruschetta) encourages him to follow his heart.
Good advice. Except that Flora moves to Switzerland, causing Arturo to swear off love forever.
Years pass, and as the killings of defiant prosecutors, judges, and policemen rage in the background, the now grown-up Arturo works as a go-fer on a bogus talk show where he provides musical accompaniment on a tiny piano. Then Flora (Cristiana Capotondi) returns, grown up and beautiful, and working for a political hack who, unbeknownst to her, is in the Mafia’s pocket.
Here Diliberto tries to make a tonal U-turn and turn the film into a condemnation of the mobsters – who up to then have been characterized as comically half-witted mugs – and acknowledge the heroism of their victims (many of whom have been killed in black comic circumstances). Some of this is moving, and some of the shtick is weirdly hilarious, but despite Diliberto’s apparent sincerity, his attempt to accomplish too many things at once ends up with him accomplishing nothing much at all.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.