The Mafia Only Kills in Summer is a fictional coming-of-age dramedy set against the backdrop of Cosa Nostra-teeming Palermo in the 1970s to the early ’90s. Pif, the stage name of Italian television personality Pierfrancesco Diliberto, directs, co-writes, and stars as Arturo, an up-and-coming journalist who opens the film by narrating the story of his middleclass childhood in ’70s Palermo. In this extended flashback, Alex Bisconti plays Arturo as a precocious child simultaneously experiencing love and violence for the first time. The mafia, we learn, influences everything and everyone in the city. Arturo’s first word is “mafia,” which isn’t surprising considering that he’s conceived by his parents while a shootout takes place, below his family’s apartment, between two gangs representing mob bosses named the Cobra and the Beast. The mafia has even infiltrated the church, as we discover after Arturo’s headmaster (Antonino Bruschetta), a friendly priest with a benign whip fetish, is shot to death in his quarters for embezzling from the Cosa Nostra.
Following in the footsteps of fellow Italian writers like Dante and Petrarch, Arturo develops a profound prepubescent love for his classmate Flora (Ginevra Antona), the upper-class daughter of an important banker who also happens to be the boss of Arturo’s father. But unlike Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, who go to heaven, Flora goes to Switzerland so that her father can escape an overly inquisitive judge looking into his possible mafia connections. Arturo is also a big fan of the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, winning first prize at his school’s costume contest for dressing up as his idol, despite being mistaken for Dracula and Quasimodo by his peers and teachers. As with Flora’s father, the film obliquely hints that Andreotti is not as pure as Arturo believes, but never explicitly mentions the former prime minister’s links to the Sicilian mafia.
The depiction of Arturo’s childhood, which makes up the first half of the film, is brisk and charmingly affective, unlike the second, which shows adult Arturo’s efforts to find a job and finally win over Flora (played as an adult by Cristiana Capotondi). Pif, middle-aged in real life, is poorly cast in the role as a recent college graduate. This section immediately succumbs to trite romance before abruptly ending with an unconvincing epilogue extolling the efforts of the anti-mafia commission and the cops who lost their lives to finally bring down the Cosa Nostra. While the film does include realistic depictions of mafia violence, individual politicians, detectives, and mafiosi come and go so quickly that the audience doesn’t have enough time to become emotionally invested in their lives and deaths.
There’s a telling moment early in the film that points to its ultimate triviality. During Arturo’s conception, an animated depiction of his mother’s womb shows all but one sperm fleeing in fright from the ovum because of the shootout below. Adult Arturo refers to that one spunky sperm as “me,” which is both scientifically inaccurate and stereotypically sexist, revealing the film to be little more than another conformist, patriarchal rom-com. Mafia murder is palmed off as retribution for womanizing that, at least implicitly, holds women partially responsible for these deaths. At first glance, this might seem as just an accurate observation of Sicilian culture, except that adult Arturo behaves in an equally chauvinist manner, chiding an older man for ogling Flora before there’s anything even resembling romance between the two of them. His casual possessiveness, which passes without comment, is reified at film’s end when the two heretofore stymied lovers finally get together. Immediately, in the span of a few cinematic minutes, Flora gives up her successful political career to marry Arturo (who’s unemployed and without job prospects) and become a housewife and mother. Apparently, this is a women’s proper place in Palermo, with or without the Cosa Nostra.