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Excellent Cadavers

I seem to be on a film kick these days, offering my inexpert advice on films and DVDs that I've been watching. But I have another one to throw into the mix.

Excellent Cadavers is an excellent documentary about the mafia in Sicily; specifically focused on the work of prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino who fought against the mafia in the 1980s and 1990s and were assassinated for their efforts. We're told that an "excellent cadaver" is how the mafia describes the death of any reasonably high-ranking official.

I first came across this documentary, produced by Alexander Stille and Marco Turco, about 3 years ago on CBC Television, Canada's public broadcaster, but missed the first half. About the same time, it was released in New York and received a glowing review from The New York Times. It so captured my attention that I bought the 1995 book written by Stille (Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and The Death of the First Italian Republic) which provided the basis for the documentary. I even watched the rather badly done movie based on the book and starring Chazz Palminteri.

But the doc itself eluded me. I couldn't find it in DVD form and documentaries aren't usually the sort of thing that one sees in TV reruns. But a few weeks ago, I finally found it, bought it and finally watched the entire doc.

It's a fascinating and profoundly depressing tale of the work of Falcone and Borsellino, and other prosecutors who fought hard against the mafia and the many politicians who have protected them. In the documentary, Stille focuses on the maxi-trials of the 1980s, where hundreds of mafiosi were brought to trial and convicted in Sicily during a brief period when the prosecutors had the protection and support of the Italian state. However, when governments changed, and support began to be withdrawn, convictions were overturned and the pair became targets. Falcone, his wife and police guards were blown apart on the road between Palermo and it's airport in 1992; a few months later, Borsellino was also killed when his car exploded outside the family apartment building.

For a time, outrage over the murders seems to have invigorated the fight against the mafia. Then, Berlusconi was elected in 2001 and began to dismantle many of the judicial reforms that Borsellino and Falcone fought for to provide more tools to protect witnesses and strengthen the fight against the mafia.

Part of what makes the documentary so powerful is the use of news footage to illustrate the story -- Borsellino at the scene of his friend's highway murder; public protests and calls for help at police funerals during brief periods when the public dared to speak out. Interviews with other prosecutors who worked with the pair are also very moving. Clips from a TV interview with Falcone before his death, talking modestly about how he deals with the personal dangers of his work, are especially poignant.

The documentary updates the book somewhat, going into the dealings of the Berlusconi government (the subject of another excellent Stille book.) However, the book Excellent Cadavers is able to go much deeper into the context around the story, to explain how and why the mafia became so powerful, especially with support from U.S. and Italian officials who saw the early mafia organization as a weapon against communism post- Second World War. The book also examines the deep, ugly links between the mafia, and government and justice officials, ties that remain strong.

The airport in Palermo has been named for Falcone and Borsellino. This seems almost a mockery of them, given that the mafia's control seems unrelenting. But perhaps I'm being too pessimistic. It's clear that they were not.

Comments (5)


Love that title! Sounds like a fascinating documentary. Too bad I don't have Zip.ca...or wait, it was the opera you had the dvd for, wasn't it? I haven't had much exposure to opera, although I do love The Magic Flute!


There are a few rays of light...

Have a look at this Web site of a Palermo group that is fighting extortion by the Mafia: http://www.addiopizzo.org/english.asp
Among the members is the owner of the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, one of the oldest restaurants in Palermo.

In November 2007, the reported head of the Sicilian Mafia was arrested near Palermo.

In February 2008, there was a major Mafia sweep in New York and Palermo.

Whether the fight against the Mafia will continue if there is a change of government in Italy is another question.

What an interesting post. Your last observation, about the airport, is very interesting, and sad of course.

Where did you find the movie?


Anne, you might want to check out zip.ca. It has a very good selection of DVDs, especially foreign films (especially Italian films!)

Chiocciola, I bought the DVD from Amazon. But if you're interested in borrowing it sometime, just let me know.

Zerlina, thanks for the link -- that's a very interesting website and I like the library of media clips. I can't help but fear that when Berlusconi returns to power (as unfortunately seems likely) any gains will be rolled back again. I'm probably too pessimistic, but the situation in Naples just seems to another glaring example of the problems.

Thanks Sandra, I might take you up on that offer!

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