Pietro Grasso, the president of the Italian Senate and former national Anti-Mafia prosecutor, has declared La Mafia uccide solo d'estate "the best film about the Mafia that I have ever seen." Critics and mafia movie aficionados might dispute Grasso's assessment, but the film, by Pierfrancesco Diliberto (aka Pif), certainly represents a milestone in cinematic depictions of Cosa Nostra. Ingeniously written, directed with flair and invention, and perfectly balanced between comedy and pathos, the film is a wholly successful directorial debut for Diliberto, a 42-year-old Palermo native who previously had been an assistant director to Franco Zeffirelli and Marco Tullio Giordana and later a writer for Italian TV.
Set in Sicily's capital, La Mafia uccide solo d'estate centers on Arturo (Alex Bisconti), a boy from a middle-class family whose life is intertwined with the Mafia from the moment of his conception: As his father was impregnating his mother, mafiosi were murdering a rival in the same apartment building. When Arturo utters his first word, it is "Mafia."
When we next see him, Arturo is a schoolboy infatuated with a new classmate, Flora (Ginevra Antona), an angelic-looking blonde. He tries to win her favor but she seems more interested in another boy, the smug Fofò. Arturo asks various adults what he should do to beat his rival, but their counsel isn't much help. Seeing Premier Giulio Andreotti on TV and in the newspapers, and realizing that every adult he knows reveres the Christian Democratic Party leader, Arturo comes to see Andreotti as a sort of spiritual guru who can help him solve his romantic problems.
Arturo compiles a scrapbook with photos and news stories about the premier, hangs a poster of him over his bed, and, at his school's Halloween party, dresses up as his hero, complete with protruding ears, eyeglasses, and a hump (When his teacher announces that Arturo is dressed as the hunchback of Notre Dame, he indignantly objects.). Before we see Arturo in full Andreotti get-up, the camera shows us only his feet, in shiny black shoes and moving in imitation of the politician's odd, shuffling gait. Later, two mafiosi, seeing Arturo in his costume, are convinced that the boy must be Andreotti's son.
While Arturo is preoccupied with Flora and Andreotti, the leader of the Corleone Mafia, Totò Riina, launches a ruthless campaign to eliminate his Palermo rivals, and anyone else who would stand in the way of his becoming Sicily's Mafia boss. Arturo, puzzled by the outbreak of violence, asks his parents and other adults for an explanation. They all lie, telling him that the murders were crimes of passion, the dead being men whose indiscretions got them killed. Women, as one man tells the boy, are more dangerous than anything else in Sicily.
Arturo, though bright and inquisitive, believes what adults tell him. Nevertheless, reality begins to penetrate the boy's naïveté when the Mafia murders a number of its high-profile opponents: the Communist Party leader Pio LaTorre; the police chief Boris Giuliano; the magistrate Rocco Chinnici; and General of the Carabinieri Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa. Diliberto, in one of his most inspired moves, depicts these real-life personages as characters whom Arturo meets in his daily life, as neighbors or familiar public figures. In one scene, he encounters Giuliano in a pasticceria; the police chief, surprised that the boy has never eaten an iris, a typical Palermo pastry, offers him one, remarking that the only thing he dislikes about the treat is that its powdered sugar sticks to his mustache. Not long after, Arturo sees Giuliano's corpse on the floor of the same pastry shop, the powdered sugar from the iris he had been eating when he was shot still on his mustache.
Arturo also befriends the kindly Rocco Chinnici, who encourages his pursuit of Flora; and, as a budding student journalist, interviews Dalla Chiesa. In the latter instance, director Diliberto drives home the point that the general – and by extension, other anti-Mafia officials – was woefully unprotected from his enemies. If a resourceful little boy can bypass his guards and gain entrance to his office, what is to stop a gang of professional killers?
If Diliberto portrays the Mafia's illustrious victims as familiar, flesh and blood figures rather than simply as martyrs or abstract heroes, he does something quite similar with mafiosi. Instead of shadowy or larger-than-life villains, they, like their opponents, are local folks, neighbors living among the noncriminal majority. Totò Riina and another notorious gangster, Leoluca Bagarella, appear several times, in scenes that illustrate the banality of their evil: Riina is too ignorant to figure out how to use an air conditioner, and Bagarella is obsessed with a sexy female pop star when he should be committing murder.
Diliberto, however, never trivializes their malevolence or the Mafia's terrible crimes. As Cosa Nostra's violence escalates in the 1980s, Sicilian officials are forced to respond. Prosecuting magistrate Giovanni Falcone, advised by Mafia pentito Tommaso Buscetta to follow Cosa Nostra's money trail, begins to seize and analyze bank records. Diliberto cannily exploits this to further dramatize the complicity of people in Arturo's world, and the immediacy of organized crime. His father works in one of the banks that Falcone is investigating; the bank's director is Flora's father, who flees to Switzerland.
The Mafia's campaign to create cadaveri eccellenti ("illustrious corpses") culminates in the murders of Giovanni Falcone and fellow prosecuting magistrate Paolo Borsellino. Diliberto depicts both killings obliquely — another of his shrewd directorial decisions — which makes them even more disturbing. Arturo's rival Fofò, now a young man, is driving on the same road as Falcone and his entourage when the bomb goes off; an unctuous TV host, whose mother lives in the same building as Borsellino, arrives there shortly after a car bomb planted by mafiosi kills the magistrate.
As a young man trying to establish himself as a TV journalist, Arturo (now played by the director himself) is reunited with Flora (Cristiana Capotondi), who is the chief press aide of Salvo Lima, the corrupt, Mafia-aligned Palermo mayor. After Lima's disgruntled "friends" kill him for not adequately protecting their interests, Flora is disabused of any notion that her boss was a respectable public servant (Her cluelessness about this matter is a bit hard to believe.). The murders of Falcone and Borsellino shock Palermo and put an end to the willful obliviousness of so many palermitani about the Mafia and its allies in politics and business. Their deaths also galvanize the simmering rage of Sicilians who had always loathed the Mafia. Diliberto includes footage of actual demonstrations from the early 1990s, with protestors voicing a demand that remains unfulfilled: "Mafia fuori dallo Stato" (get the Mafia out of the State).
Arturo's and Flora's eventual awakening to the reality of the Mafia – and its alliances with Giulio Andreotti and other top politicians – parallels the awakening of their city. The film ends on a satisfyingly hopeful note, as Arturo, now married to Flora, declares that he (unlike his parents) will not lie to their son about the Mafia. He realizes that parents not only must protect their children from the world's evil; they must also help them to recognize it.