It’s pretty obvious that mobsters, like hitmen, have been egregiously over-represented in the cinema. Not that that’s surprising. Mob life is obviously exciting, conducive to crackling storytelling about basic human passions: greed, lust, envy, betrayal. When done well, gangster narratives have even become metaphor—for nation-building in The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America, for capitalism in Goodfellas and Scarface, for existential despair in Miller’s Crossing. Roberta Torre’s 1997 Mafioso elegy/farce To Die for Tano has no such lofty ambitions, other than perhaps some obvious potshots at macho hubris.
Despite winning three awards at the 1997 Venice Film Festival and becoming a commercial success in Italy, Tano was never picked up by U.S. distributors for a stateside release until now, and it’s easy to see why. One for the Movies That Aren’t Nearly as Clever as Their Directors Think They Are canon, Tano presents itself as a queasy pastiche of mafia legend, nightclub revue, and slapstick played out by nonprofessional actors. It’s like a Jerry Lewis romp populated by the extended cast of Bicycle Thieves. But though that may sound like an ingeniously deranged mash-up, this is material that’s as likely to inspire headaches as belly laughs.
Torre’s film eulogizes fallen Palermo mafioso Tano Guarrasi (Ciccio Guarino, a baker in real-life), unceremoniously gunned down in his own kitchen, by taking on the structure of a wake, as Tano’s friends and family take turns offering their remembrances. And yet, it’s a mark of the superficiality of the film that we never really learn anything about Tano, other than that he sported a ridiculous mullet, a bulging gut, an apparently waxed chest, and had condemned his own sisters to eternal spinsterhood. The most we ever see Tano in action is during the—admittedly inspired—flashback to his initiation into the “family,” represented as a cabaret revue, with Tano’s mafia godfather as a sleazy lounge singer.
It may seem strange to mention American gangster movies here, but Torre references The Godfather and Goodfellas far more explicitly than, say, Alberto Lattuada’s homegrown Mafioso, which shares little with Tano other than an unfocused irreverence. Torre relentlessly spoofs the mafia wives and molls who pamper themselves at a sickly pink-shaded beauty salon, stretching Scorsese’s observations on the bad taste of mob wives in Goodfellas to their grotesque limits. Whereas Coppola started The Godfather Part II with a funeral procession to signify the inciting moment of his foundation myth, Torre uses her opening funeral procession and subsequent wake not to memorialize Tano, but to lay bare the hypocrisy and false piety of his mourners. Hollywood is more a focal point for Tano than the Palermo of its setting.
The few scenes that demonstrate any eye for color or composition, like the metaphorical destruction of the beauty parlor late in the film, rendered in mad splashes of red and blue that would make Kenneth Anger take notice, only serve to show how much of a visual eyesore the rest of the movie is. And yet one can’t deny that there’s a manic charge that propels Tano during its mercifully short 75 minutes. Torre certainly utilizes all aspects of her cinematic palette, including even animation and puppetry, but never gives her style coherent artistic shape or applies it to anything other than a snickering sense of humor. Like satirical dynamite missing its detonator, Tano is a dud.