ESSENTIAL TELEMOVIES: Bella Mafia (1997)

“Bella Mafia” really is not a miniseries, clocking in at under two hours and it’s also a bit beyond the 20-year span of the Great American Miniseries, but it’s so much fun, I can’t allow it to be ignored.  It plays like a miniseries, is cast like a miniseries and if it had been produced a decade earlier, would have been a miniseries.  But, based on a novel written in 1991, it was unfortunately too late and it was simply a movie-of-the-week.  Actually, not so simply.  Get comfy, this one is one of a kind.  Once you have seen “Bella Mafia,” you will never forget it.

In Sicily in 1977, Nastassja Kinski, trying her best to look young and Italian, but not succeeding at either, is madly in love with Michael Hayden, young, yes, but as WASP-y as they come.  She wants to meet his family, but instead they have sex on the beach.

Tony LoBianco has a very sick son in a monastery that he wants no one to know about.

Dennis Farina, Italian, sure, but with that unique American accent of his, is the Don of an Italian family and Tony LoBianco is there to get him interested in a drug business deal from America.  Tony leaves the meeting spitting and cursing, and it’s decided that Michael may not be safe in America, going off to Harvard.  Michael, by the way, speaks with an Italian accent (now and then), though no one else around him does.  After promising Papa Dennis that he will be careful, he sneaks out of his bedroom to go to Nastassja and profess his love once again.  On his way back, Tony’s limo happens to be on the street, so he offers him a ride, beats the hell out of him and takes him to a meeting with some high-powered Mafioso.  Tony is awfully dumb to have taken Michael to the meeting where he could see every one’s faces, which means he’s just played his last scene.

Michael’s papa is understandably upset, but his mama, Vanessa Redgrave, is even more shaken, actually trying her best for about half a scene to act by speaking Italian and collapsing in a heap while shouting without sound.  Don’t expect our resident slumming Oscar winner to keep up that pace.  Dennis makes his remaining sons swear an oath, in both English and Italian, to kill Tony.  They actually pierce their fingers and make it a blood oath.  Vanessa stands aside, saying, “he was my son too!”

Off in NYC, Dennis tries to kill Tony himself, as if a powerful Mafia Don would actually dirty his hands like that.  The rest of the Dons tell Dennis he has to go back to Sicily and cannot carry out the vendetta in NYC.  He’s somehow fine with that, as long as Tony never sets foot in Palermo.  Geez, not much of a vendetta is it?

Meanwhile, Nastassja gives birth to Michael’s son and rehearses how she’s break the news to Dennis and company in the mirror.  I suggest she pick one accent and stick to it, but somehow that seems already impossible.  She shows up at the compound and is first tossed aside by the guards and then moved down by brother Richard Joseph Paul’s sports car.  She survives, to be taken in by motherly Vanessa.

About a year later, Nastassja is still at the compound, having made quite an impression on stuttering goofball Richard.  “I like her,” Vanessa says, hoping to marry Nastassja off to one of her sons, but Dennis is angry that she’s the daughter of a domestic who “scrubbed floors in a convent.”  That sounds absolutely respectable to me, a convent!  Anyway, Vanessa not only wants to give her dimwit son a lovely bride, but wants to use the wedding as a way to make everyone think the vendetta is over.  “We can wait,” she says, as if she’s running the family.  The parents split up the two and work on them to agree to marriage.  Richard is fine because he’s in love, but Vanessa merely asks Nastassja, “can you love him?”  “One day all this could be yours,” Vanessa says, pricking her finger on a fake flower in the garden.  All of what can be hers?  A well-lit set?

No worries about Nastassja’s son, because the nuns at the orphanage where she left him are strict: since she has been gone more than three months, they have given him away for adoption.  Wait, where is that in the Bible?  I guess we don’t have the money for a baby actress.

We also don’t have the money for a proper wedding, because there isn’t a guest in anything fancier than a sun dress, except Jennifer Tilly, dressed up in a black number that shows off her considerable assets.  She’s pissed because “no one will speak English to me,” as she tells her boyfriend, a man in Dennis’ employ.  “We are in Italy,” her boyfriend says, no one laughing at the irony that not a word of Italian has been spoken in decades.  Another of Dennis’ sons hits on Jennifer, taking her away with a big bottle of wine.  “I’m sure you can take it all,” he tells her without a trace of irony.  However, this brother has been assigned to Ileanna Douglas by Vanessa, the family matchmaker.  Jennifer is determined to catch the bouquet, but Ileanna’s mother pushes her out of the way so that Ileanna can catch it.

Let’s skip to Atlanta City, where Jennifer is working as a blackjack girl in one of Dennis Farina’s casinos.  She once again bumps into brother W. Earl Brown and they go at it right on the dinner table in his hotel suite.  There’s still the matter of Illeana Douglas, saying with a straight face that she’s 25 years old.  She’s rather gloomy, but not as gloomy as the son who has to take her to dinner when Earl goes off with Jennifer.  The two have an exceedingly depressing conversation about being a less-preferred sibling, but their mutual loser society act ends in a wedding by the next scene, where Earl is squiring around Jennifer in a shag coat that came off the casino floor.  “You don’t bring a whore to a wedding,” Dennis rails at Earl, and tells him to dump her.  If this were “The Godfather,” poor Earl would be Fredo Corleone, but this isn’t “The Godfather.”

When Earl tries to get Jennifer out of the wedding quietly, she goes into a fit, revealing she’s his wife and also pregnant…oops, not pregnant, because she goes into labor during the argument!  In the hospital, Jennifer complains about all the jobs she’s had working in high heels, and one stint in a “poodle parlor.”  Unfortunately, the baby dies, a perfect excuse for the family to have her dumped, but Nastassja takes pity on her, because she can’t get pregnant.  “I want my son.  I want my son,” she whispers, the truth lost on her husband.

Back in Italy, Nastassja’s kid is now in a monastery and do you want to guess that it’s the same one housing Tony’s crippled kid?  Trust me, guess it.  The friars there, seemingly from the same hood as Dennis, have a screeching howling brat on their hands, dumped on them by his foster family for being such a rotten kid.  “Go to the Devil,” he yells at the main man, grabbing his mother’s necklace (the one Michael gave her the night he died) and biting the priest.  The kid runs into Christopher Shaw’s room (yup, Tony’s son).  Little Alec Plummer is fascinated by the mutant in the sunglasses and ascot.  “You’re a gargoyle.  I like you pink face,” Alec chirps.  The sons of enemies are friends.  I’m letting you know that in case you missed the intense subtlety of the scene.

Nastassja has opened a dress shop.  Dennis wants to take her global, but Nastassja and her business partner just want to start small.  Oh, and to go along with the great news of her dress shop, she’s pregnant!  Her hubby stutters, “you…you…you…have a grandson!” to Dennis a few months later (remember, time means nothing in this piece), and turns to Vanessa, saying, “you have one too” because there are twins.  Vanessa is a modern Mafia wife.  She takes the pictures in the hospital.

We jump ahead in time, again, where some of the grandchildren have aged and some have only kind of aged.  The whole family has a meal together, wives and all, as Dennis tells a stupid story to make everyone laugh.  Though Nastassja’s boys are about four, her first son, still in with the fathers, is now about 20 and gorgeous James Marsden, still pals with snobby smart Christopher, and still wearing the girly heart necklace around his neck.  James shows Christopher a gun and Christopher wants to know where he got it.  “Mail order, like everything we get here,” he replies.  Wait, so UPS delivers to monasteries in Italy?  How many bells do you have to ring to get in there?

Tony comes to see his dying son.  “Together, we have been one being,” Christopher tells his father, noting that James has been the body and Christopher the mind.  Uh huh.  That makes as much sense as the constantly shifting time periods.  Let’s wrap this in a nice package and have Christopher tell his father to take care of James always.  That would be James, the grandson of his sworn enemy Dennis, though no one knows it.  Christopher has a grand “the happiest moments I’ve ever known have been with you speech” as he grasping for breath and finally dies.  James runs around the abbey screaming, overturning wheel barrows and generally knocking himself out of contention for any role offered to handsome young actors that year with his howling badness.  “Take me to America,” is all he can think of to say to Tony, promising to help him, brushing the dirt from his face and hugging him close.  “I have a son…you’re gonna be my son, you’re gonna be Giorgio,” Tony says with an odd lilt in his voice.  “Luca.  My name is Luca,” he says (no, he doesn’t live upstairs from you, not that Luca).

Two years later, or so the title card says, because they are as reliable as the acting in “Bella Mafia,” Tony is arrested and James goes to another Don, Carmen Argenziano, for help.  James wants to take care of the men who did this to his father.  Apparently, Tony and James must have agreed on how he is to present himself.  He’s Luca Giorgio, therefore both himself and Tony’s dead kid.  And a friggin’ psychopath, but a damn pretty one.  I know this is supposed to be bella about the dames, but James is the most bella of all.  In prison, Tony tells James that the man behind his arrest is Dennis, about to throw another wedding, this time for his granddaughter.  Has this family not learned that weddings bring only bad news?  People end up giving birth or dead or jinxing everything.

James creeps into the house to kill the male heirs, starting with Nastassja’s twin boys, who also happen to be his half brothers.  This is done in slow motion as the bride spins around in her dress, as happy as can be.  Dennis has his sons join him around a table to get killed…oops, I mean, for a toast “to my son Michael.  At last, justice.”  Timing really sucks for this family.

It’s Grandma Vanessa who discovers her dead grandsons, but Nastassja comes in right behind her.  As for the men, they have been poisoned by the wine and are also dead, news Vanessa gets only moments later.  She’s told her whole family is dead, but she insists on asking about them one by one.  The widows gather in a scene guaranteed to make you double over with laughter.  First Nastassja breaks down, then Jennifer does it, in high camp, but Vanessa outdoes them all.  Wearing her husband’s ring, she makes them all swear vengeance.  Then in good Italian fashion (which applies to no one in the church, not an Italian among them), everyone wails up a storm and the opera music is blared full tilt.  The wives, veiled, walk down the church aisle, beautifully lit, as if The Supremes were about to play The Vatican.  All of the American Mafia men travel to the funeral, but they order loyal family retainer Franco Nero (what European-set miniseries would be complete without him?) to give them the deeds to all of Dennis’ businesses or they will kill the widows too.  Instead of letting that happen, Franco burns them all and shoots himself.

James goes back to his father and reports on the funeral with a big smile, also bragging that it was his idea to kill the little boys.  “You’re insane.  I wish to God I had never set eyes on you,” Tony rages, cursing him.  Tony goes into overacting heaven ranting that at least his dead son had a brain, but James tries to match him by wishing him a long life behind bars and walks away while Tony shouts for him.

Carmen and company are upset that no papers can be found and order Tony killed.

In perhaps the oddest scene yet, James talks to an American tourist on the side of a road and boasts that he’s a killer for the Mafia.

No, sorry, that’s not the oddest scene yet.  The oddest scene yet would follow immediately, with Vanessa, in her mourning black, using a tree as target practice.  The other widows try to stop her, but she will not be stopped.  That bullet is intended for Tony.

At Tony’s trial, the loyal guards let Vanessa and her girls, in their mourning black (Jennifer is in black, but a boa rather than a veil).  The have gotten a gun inside and Vanessa aims it at Tony as the proceedings start, but she merely shatters a lamp.  Tony is killed, but not by her.  Could it be James dressed as a monk, cowl, rosary beads and all?  Seems likely.  As he’s running away, the widow’s car hits him, so they take him to the house.  Suddenly we’re in a slapstick comedy as Ileanna and Jennifer snap at each other.  Should we guess if granddaughter Gina Phillips will fall in love with James?

“Who’s gonna tell Mama that we have a house guest?  It’s not gonna be me,” Jennifer chirps, leaving James to rest in the very bed where he killed his two half-brothers.  Even he sees that grand bit of irony before passing out.  Jennifer goes through James’ bag and finds a gun, “hundreds of dollars” and “this thing, what do you think it is?”  I know she’s daffy, but everyone knows a monk’s costume.  We’ve all done Halloween.

The police show up at the compound and tell the ladies that they think the killer was dressed as a monk.  Abbott and Costello, sorry, Jennifer and Ileanna, go through a very unconvincing routine denying having seen anyone like that.  It’s Nastassja who plays the drama, angry that there is no justice for her boys, but they are seeking a killer’s killer.

James escapes to Carmen’s, where he hears Carmen on the phone vowing to “get rid of him” personally.  “I could have killed them all if I wanted to,” James tells Carmen, giving him a poison drink.  “You have a loud voice,” he notes, as if that was the actual crime he committed.  James kisses Carmen and lets him die.

Nastassja is desperate to get to America because she knows their American holdings can be of value.  So, off the black brigade goes, in first class, no less.  Not to worry, James is on the same plane, but in coach.  When the widows get back to Gina’s place in New York City, James is there, having taken the identity of the American tourist.  He spins quite a yarn for the widows to convince them he was acting on behalf of some crazy guy who paid him to do everything.  He wants to thank the widows for saving his life.  “Come to dinner,” Vanessa says, the ultimate sign of misplaced belief.

Just as the widows are wondering how to raise some cash, hired guns come bursting through the door to kill them, but don’t worry, James is right behind them to blow holes in them.  Vanessa recognizes one of the killers as the brother of one of the American Dons and bangs his head against the floor until he’s dead.  Ileanna and Gina help James put the dead body in the car and Nastassja and Jennifer take the one still alive.  James tells Nastassja to clean up all the blood and then wipes some off her face.

But wait.

Wait.

Wait.

It happens.  Yes, this movie hits an all-time high when James then plants a kiss on Nastassja…HIS MOTHER!  Oh, yeah!  James confesses his love to her a scene later, but when did he have time to fall in love with her?

James takes the widows to a country house, but Nastassja stays in NYC to talk to the police.  She finds out James is not who he says he is, but rather the son of her family’s sworn enemy.  “He’s not been here,” she tells the cops, who wait about 10 minutes to hear an answer as to whether she knows him or not.  The police are tough on her, but hidden in shadows to play the scene, she sticks to her story.  You see, she’s gotten good at this vendetta thing.

Nastassja goes to Peter Bogdanovich to arrange a deal.  She wants to marry off her niece Gina to his son, in exchange for protection from his mafia family.  Peter salivates over her holdings.  Monetary holdings.  She promises him Tony LoBianco’s fortune.

The widows are delighted at the country house James has snagged for them.  “You got a wine cellar?” Jennifer squeaks?  James goes there just long enough to get two bottles of wine for Nastassja to tell the rest who he really is.  “Talk a lot, like you usually do,” she tells Jennifer before the meal, now that they are all nervous.  She parks him at the head of the table for the grand meal she is serving.  Vanessa is poisoning it in the kitchen as they speak.

We’re back to farce as James doesn’t die from the poisoned pasta.  Not to worry, Vanessa has poisoned the pudding too.  You know those great Italian cooks!  The widows tie him to the chair.  “Is this a game?” he asks, half gone from the poison.  I’m not sure what poison this is, something between dead and drunk in the poison aisle at the supermarket.  Nastassja names him as Tony’s son and he goes wild, speaking pretty much the first Italian we’ve heard all night.  The poison leaves him howling in his chair, regressing to his past, which has all the women vacillating about his fate, until he spits on little Gina.  Then Nastassja comes in alone and he tells them they should kill the rest and take all the money in the house.  There’s another passionate kiss between them, which she has to deliver as part of a bargain.  Whatever, the bargain means nothing, but the kiss sure as hell does.  James goes ape shit talking about killing Nastassja’s boys, flapping his tongue like the devil is inside him.  So, she thrusts a knife into his heart and THEN discovers the heart pendant around his neck, the one his father gave to her mother.

Better than a Greek tragedy!  Put this one in a time vault and let future generations know American TV for what it really was!

Anyway, the widows bury James and then Nastassja strips down to her negligee to burn her clothes.  For what she’s done for the family, Mama Vanessa asks Nastassja to be “head of the family,” to wear her husband’s ring and then kneels in front of her.  All of the American Dons are corralled, kissing the ring, of course.  Nastassja begs for no more blood, no more vendettas.  The Dons want to buy the American holdings, but Nastassja trumps them by announcing Gina’s wedding to Peter’s son.  Another wedding?  Who is left to die this time, except all of the American Dons, of course?

“She has evil eyes, like the devil,” one Don says to another about Nastassja.  Jennifer bumps into Peter and is immediately smitten.  Using her boa and breasts, she snares him.  “This is a day we’ll never forget,” Vanessa coos as they hand one of the Dons a glass of champagne.  As he leaves the wedding cackling about “la bella mafia,” he feels the now-familiar stomach cramps.  Nastassja heads inside to X him out of a picture of the Dons she has left to assassinate.

“Bella Mafia” ranks among the looniest ideas EVER to be filmed.  Not only filmed, but with a great cast.  I would like to hope everyone did it for the money, rather than thinking there was a great script, because if the latter is the case, well, let’s not even think it.  Vanessa Redgrave as a mob wife?  Nastassja Kinski as an Italian?  Jennifer Tilly as…okay, skip her.  James Marsden worked again after this?  So many questions!

It’s so stupid, but so laughable.  “Bella Mafia” never fails to make me cackle with glee.  This is required viewing for any funfest fan.

Categories: Essential Telemovies

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