Toni Colette is an actress whose repertoire I was unfamiliar with until the last few years. This, despite the fact that I have seen Shaft and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. It was Hereditary and Knives Out that brought her firmly to my attention, but thus far, my favorite performance of hers has to be Mamma Mafia.
A recent release, the film follows a woman who, shortly after learning that her Italian grandfather has died, discovers her husband is cheating on her. The latter discovery prompts her to jet off to Italy in order to attend her grandfather’s funeral, which is then beset by Mafiosos, introducing her to the truth of her grandfather’s life and death: he was a Mafia Don. While all of this sounds dark, gritty, and serious, the film makes no bones about the fact that it is a Hard-R action-comedy film, replete with gratuitous violence that is played for laughs as often as it is played for drama.
Kristin (Toni Colette) has lived most of her life seemingly in the shadow of others. Her bosses and coworkers take her for granted when they aren’t talking over her and dismissing her ideas in favor of another boner pill. Her husband Paul (Tim Daish), the aforementioned cheater, hasn’t even attempted to have sex with her in years – despite his claims that he needs sex, just not with her. Even her son Domenick (Tommy Rodger) seems content to dismiss her – I’m just saying I would love to have homemade trail mix for long road trips that my mother lovingly prepared. However, in her life, one person fights to prop her up and boost her confidence: her best friend Jenny (Sophia Nomvete). Jenny, who at first appears to be the typical sassy black friend, is hilarious in her own right – and gainfully employed, with most of her scenes involving her actually doing her job while trying to urge her friend to actually live her life.
Genre films can be difficult to peg down. After all, everybody’s tastes are different, and comedy-action films with a Hard-R can be some of the hardest to sell to an audience. How much sex and violence is too much? When do you lean into the comedy of a situation versus the drama? Black comedy is often the route that these films take. A solemn procession at the close of a funeral is depressing. Watching that procession be shot up can be horrifying. The ridiculous facial expressions that Kristin makes when it first happens bring it into comedy. When Kristin tries to help a man whose been wounded, asking him if he’s okay, only for him to yell at her that he’s been shot as if it were the dumbest question in the world? Despite the tense circumstances, that cements it into one of the funniest scenes.
Kristin has very little self-confidence when she is introduced and is quite aware of that fact. The problem she faces isn’t awareness. It’s her seeming inability to be proactive. Ironically, when she becomes the head of a feared and revered Mafia family, Kristin begins to find a backbone as she is thrown from one insane scenario to another. Her biggest interest at first is not being involved. Fabrizio, her cousin (Eduardo Scarpetta), is all too eager to encourage her to step aside, as he feels it’s only his right to take over the family and its criminal enterprises. On the other hand, Bianca (Monica Bellucci) is dedicated to the family – despite only being an honorary member herself – and is insistent on following the will of their fallen leader. All of which causes chaos within the family and among the others clamoring for territory and industries that the Balbano Family controls.
With Fabrizio, the other two central members of the Balbano Family who are focused on are Kristin’s bumbling bodyguards, Aldo (Francesco Mastroianni) and Dante (Alfonso Perugini). While Dante is prone to misunderstanding Kristin’s American colloquialisms (hilariously demonstrated by him turning on a light when Kristin mentions that she is still in the dark about what is going on about the Balbano Family), Aldo is quick to turn his friend onto the right track.
On the other side, the main antagonistic group is the Romano Family. They are first led by Carlo Romano (Giuseppe Zeno), the suave, handsome, and arrogant heir to the leader who died alongside Kristin’s grandfather and dozens of other Balbano and Romano loyalists. Kristin, eager to get back to her romantic jaunt through Italy, is quick to meet with him to settle the Balbano Family affairs, while Carlo is simply eager to kill her, to his detriment. The rest of the Balbano Family include ‘Mammone’ Romano (Vincenzo Pirrotta), their assassin Hank (Jay Natelle), and two sons who are in the background yet never named (played by Riccardo Martini and Gianpiero Zaino). It takes everybody a rather long time to grasp that Kristin has no interest in leading the Balbano family, but all of their attempts to get rid of her simply drive Kristin to the power that she now holds as a means to protect herself and the community she is now at the center of. The irony of the situation is lost on everybody except for Bianca.
The primary relationship in this film is the burgeoning friendship between Kristin and Bianca. As Kristin stumbles her way through the initial efforts of dealing with being a crime boss, something she is adamantly against becoming, Bianca is there to dispense advice and, when necessary, offer constructive criticism.
At several points, there is the possibility that Bianca may be out to get Kristin in order to take over the Balbano Family herself. However, next to Fabrizio’s naked greed and ambition, Bianca’s cool, dispassionate handling of Balbano Family affairs marks her as the better leader. Yet, sometimes people are exactly who they say they are, and Bianca has several opportunities to not only undermine Kristin but outright displace her, but she never does. Fabrizio certainly takes numerous opportunities to do so, even when they are less than ideal – whether for the family as a whole or for himself personally.
Truly, Bianca and Kristin’s friendship is the highlight of the film. Her gentle reproach about informing the family when Kristin has committed a murder on the estate grounds isn’t so much a criticism about murder, but that they had no idea if she were alive or not. After all, one corpse left in her bedroom could mean that three other rivals could have absconded with her. Monica Bellucci is clearly having the time of her life, reminding everybody why she was a standout performance in The Matrix Reloaded and Spectre. As the first character introduced in the film, I was ecstatic that she was not shuffled to the side as she was in those other two films. Bianca, always the consummate professional, handles everything that comes her way with quiet panache and soothing compassion. Whether it’s a shootout or a fashion show.
The reason that Bianca and Kristin’s friendship is so central to Mamma Mafia is because it’s also about Kristin learning how to live her life without a man in it. Despite her husband’s philandering being exposed, she has dreams of “Eat, Pray, Love (Fuck).” It’s the kind of romantic ideal that many people have when they think of Italy and France, and countless films involve an American jetting off to Europe and finding themselves in a whirlwind romance. That’s where Lorenzo (Giulio Corso) comes in. Kristin literally bumps into him at the taxi line, and after awkwardly managing to get his number (before her phone is destroyed by the Balbano’s for being a security risk), part of the film focuses on her trying to maintain her romantic vision of her trip to Italy. Bianca is kind to remind her that she came for a funeral. Even as Kristin and Lorenzo’s relationship heats up, the typical issues that come from living a double life are at play.