I spent a recent morning walking around Caernarfon castle with my Italian pal Iva. We learnt about Old Welsh kings, a mystical legend connecting this Celtic seat of power to Rome and its subsequent usurpation by English monarchs (more specifically Edward I in 1283) who from 1301 onwards symbolically titled their first born sons the ‘Prince of Wales’ (a farcical practice that continues to this day, with jug-eared toff Charlie Windsor). Eddie the First’s wife Eleanor proved to be a far more curious character, but she will have to be the subject of another blog post.
As the sun set over the ramparts of this impressive bit of fortified architecture, we moved from one family-run protectionist racket to another and decided to head home and watch I Cento Passi (One Hundred Steps). Marco Tullio Giordana’s 2000 movie tells the true story of Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Impastato, a political activist who opposed the Sicilian Mafia in the sixties and seventies.
The story begins when Peppino (Luigi Lo Cascio) becomes traumatised after seeing the assassination of his beloved uncle Cesare, then the head of the Mafia in the small town of Cinisi, Palermo. It is the beginning of a change in Peppino that will ultimately create a schism within his family and a thorn in the side of Sicilian society.
As a young man he becomes radicalised under the guidance of local artist and communist Stefano Venuti and helps to lead a struggle by peasant farmers whose land has been expropriated to build the new airport. In 1965 he creates the newsletter L’idea socialista (in real life Peppino was part of the left-wing PSIUP party or Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity) and pens an article entitled ‘La Mafia è una montagna di merda’ (‘the Mafia is a load of shit’), which even the outspoken commie Stefano thinks has overstepped the mark.
Peppino calls out his mentor for being cowardly, but it’s clear to both the old artist and the audience that our young hero forgets the patronage afforded by his deceased uncle. Needless to say his living family, in particular his father Luigi (Luigi Maria Burruano) who is indebted to the the Cosa Nostra, freak out and Peppino is cast out of the house. “You need to honour your father”, Luigi screams, the thin allegorical veil of the mafia ‘family’ slipping for a moment. But Peppino’s resolve hardens as he lives in a shed and relies on secret handouts from his mother (Lucia Sardo).
The plot really gets interesting with the creation of Radio Aut (pronounced ‘out’), a pirate station run by a collective of young people, Musica e Cultura, who also curate theatre, debates and gigs. This is all true to life: in 1976 Peppino had a daily show, Onda Pazza (Crazy Wave), on which he openly made fun of the ‘mafiosi’ and their collusion with the police and state officials. This is where Cascio really brings Peppino to life, relishing the cheeky but biting humour that was characteristic of those programmes. It’s compelling and funny stuff and knocks Kenny Everett into a cocked hat.
The target of much of Peppino’s satirical ire is Gaetano ‘Tano’ Badalamenti (an understated but scary performance by Tony Sperandeo), now the Mafia Don in Cinisi, whom he dubs ‘Tano Seduto’ (Sitting Tano), the mayor of his fictional dystopian town Mafiopoli. Don Badalamenti lives just one hundred footsteps from the Impastato family front door, his grip on those in power and his absolute control of the region an open secret to all in the town. Unfortunately for Peppino, Tano seems respected and liked, rather than feared – with many owing the crime syndicate their livelihoods or security. Indeed, Guiseppe’s younger brother Giovanni (played in the film with an innocent, uncomprehending, reverence of his older sibling by Paolo Briguglia) would later say in the Antimafia Commission hearings:
“It seemed that Badalamenti was well liked by the carabinieri as he was calm, reliable, and always liked a chat. It almost felt like he was doing them a favour in that nothing ever happened in Cinisi, it was a quiet little town. If anything, we were subversives who made nuisances of ourselves. This was what the carabinieri thought. […] I often used to see them walking arm in arm with Tano Badalamenti and his henchmen. You can’t have faith in the institutions when you see the police arm in arm with mafiosi.” – Giovanni Impastato
As daddy Impastato moves from affronted rage to paternal fear for his son, he visits Italian relatives in the States to try and get Peppino out of Sicily, even bagging him the promise of radio work in New York if he gets out while the going is good. But Luigi has mistaken Peppino’s pointed and passionate activism for youthful faddish folly, incapable of understanding his son. Still, they seem to make their peace before Luigi’s traffic death. Sorry, belated spoiler alert. Snubbing the mafiosi at his father’s funeral and ramping up his criticisms on the airwaves, it’s evident that Peppino’s days are numbered. You don’t need spoilers or to have read the Wikipedia entries to know that you can’t dis the Don for too long without getting your comeuppance.
The film reminded me, unsurprisingly, of Lavorare con lentezza (Working Slowly), Guido Chiesa and Wu Ming‘s 2004 drama about Bologna’s Radio Alice. A comparable pirate station, also launched in 1976, Radio Alice would later become more overtly political and aligned the autonomism movement. Both movies made me pine for a subversive counter-cultural pirate radio station to challenge the corruption and frustration born of state institutions. If only there was some way for the youth of today to make their own radio shows, eh?
“Diciamo una volta e per tutti che noi siciliani la Mafia la vogliamo. Ma non perché ci fa paura, perché ci dà sicurezza. Perché ci identifica. Perché ci piace. Noi siamo la Mafia. E tu Peppino non sei stato che un povero illuso.” – Salvo Vitalie (Claudio Gioè), I Cento Passi
“Let’s say once and for all that we Sicilians, we want the mafia. But not because it scares us, because it gives us security. Because we can identify with it. Because we like it. We are the Mafia. And you Peppino, you were nothing but deluded.” – Salvo Vitalie (Claudio Gioè), One Hundred Steps
Both films are great and the real people behind the broadcasts are worthy of remembrance, but without wishing to belittle the activists of Radio Alice (those in the film are fictional as I recall), there is a boldness and braveness to what Giuseppe Impastasto did. Directly challenging the very real and very dangerous cabal controlling and subjugating the people where he lived was no mean feat. It’s thanks to his work, and the outpouring of support and solidarity following his death, that the state finally began challenging the power of the mafia. Joking about pirate stations aside, Peppino’s legacy can perhaps be seen in other forms, like the app NOma (No Mafia places and stories) which anonymously but publicly details the locations of murders and illicit investments by the ‘padrinos’ of Italy’s (very much living) criminal underworld.
For those who speak Italian there is an archive of some original Radio Aut snippets here. For those in Sicily and beyond who are fighting corruption, let’s hope that this is no longer “in the air that you breathe”, but rather take solace in the banner that led his funeral procession: “With the idea and the courage of Peppino, we continue”.