Marco Turco’s 2005 documentary Excellent Cadavers recounts the post-World War II history of the Sicilian mafia to challenge the myths that surround it. Based on Alexander Stille’s book of the same title, the film undermines the notion that la cosa nostra only affects those within its ranks and instead represents the mafia as a self-serving entity that fanatically pursues wealth and political power. The movie serves as a necessary counterpoint to Hollywood gangster films by working against the stereotypes and myths that have characterized the genre and by refusing to allow viewers to identify with the film’s mafiosi. This is a documentary that demonstrates that the majority of Sicilians resent the power the mob wields and one that humanizes the magistrates, law enforcement officials, and politicians who were threatened and oftentimes murdered when they tried to bring mob officials to justice.
Turco’s picture follows Stille into the libraries, courts, and archives of Sicily where he researches the saga the film chronicles. Through interviews, taped confessions, and historical texts, a once elusive story of power and political corruption emerges. Always a part of the Sicilian political landscape, the mafia’s position was strengthened and cemented by Allied forces when post-World War II order was secured by placing mafia chieftains in official political positions. We learn that the mafia began to move from outlying areas into the city of Palermo in the 1970s when it became clear that the city offered greater financial possibilities. Journalists and fellow magistrates recount how Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino became prominent anti-mafia prosecutors throughout the 1970s and 1980s and how their efforts led to the imprisonment of hundreds of mafiosi in the mid-1980s. But we also learn that la cosa nostra is a resilient institution. Falcone and Borsellino were assassinated in 1992, and the mafia’s influence on Italian politics today seems stronger than ever.
Throughout the film, still photographs and archival footage emphasize the brutality of mob violence. Decapitated heads, bullet-ridden corpses, and blood-soaked sidewalks emphasize the vicious nature of the mafia. Family members lie dead beside their husbands, sons, and fathers. Those that survive wail uncontrollably while passersby treat these crime scenes with resignation, shocked by their vicious cruelty and feeling powerless to affect change. Unlike the mafia of The Godfather, these gangsters do not operate as an alternative form of altruistic justice or an ideal family. Instead, they are in the business of intimidation, unconcerned about the plight of the poor, and existing to increase their own wealth by maintaining a crippling influence on the local, state, and national governments.
And for these reasons, the citizens of Palermo detest the mafia. Thousands protest its influence. Widows cry out for an end to la cosa nostra and mob violence. Lifelong residents, disgusted by the mafia’s destruction of their beloved city, flee to Paris. It is a hated institution, and yet, it has a weighty influence on Italian politics and the Italian economy. Stille’s voiceover tells viewers that today, 80% of Palermo businesses pay the mob for protection and that most, if not all, public contracts are handled by mob syndicates. The situation seems bleak, but Excellent Cadavers leaves viewers with hope. Falcone and Borsellino showed that the people of Palermo will support prosecutors and politicians courageous and skilled enough to take on the mafia and win. “It’s an organization whose members can be brought to justice,” intones Stille near the end of the film, “not a mysterious anthropological phenomenon.”
Stille’s argument seems to be that we have become so obsessed with the intricacies and codes of mob life that we have neglected its raison d’être. Behind the “hits,” the families, and the inter-mob politics lies an entity that exists to profit from the exploitation of innocent people. Excellent Cadavers gives us that story – an unromantic account of the mob told from an outsider’s perspective. There are no interviews with mob members in this film. Turco forces viewers to see the…