Catherine Hardwicke is one of the few directors working in Hollywood who is committed to women’s cinema as a distinct mode and experience. Her latest film, Mafia Mamma, is a parody Italian escapism jaunt that completely ruptures the way in which middle-aged women, in particular, tend to be used as placeholders for facile sincerity in mainstream releases. It also reunites her with muse Toni Collette, who plays Kristin, an American woman who discovers that her estranged Italian grandfather has died, and that she is “required” to attend the funeral in Italy. The moment she arrives, she declares that “I want to drink wine, eat pasta and be romanced,” while Eat Pray Love is a constant point of reference, and every Italian man seems to have imbibed Elizabeth Gilbert’s life lessons. Yet while Kristin does indeed discover that Italy is her true home, and Italians are her true soulmates, it’s in a different way from what she expected, since it turns out she has inherited the role of Don in a major Mafia family.
This produces the comic premise at the heart of Mafia Mamma – namely, that the more the Mafia obtrudes on the action, the more Kristin treats the trip as her own personal Mafia escapist film. The story becomes more inane as the stakes get higher, and as Kristin doubles down to ensure that she gets her Eat Pray Love’s worth, but entirely in Italy, without having to travel to India or Bali. In fact, Mafia Mamma often feels like a parody of the pasta subplot in Eat Pray Love more specifically, which was the most enjoyable, inane and ridiculous part of the film. Kristin continually sexualises pasta, to the point where she seems to have a pasta fetish, falling into the arms of a handsome pasta manufacturer as soon as she steps outside the airport, and later telling him that “your pasta is the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth.”
Likewise, her first meeting with the rival mob boss, the boss responsible for assassinating her grandfather (and much of her extended family) plays like a surreal fantasy of Italian self-realisation. With the help of Bianca, another relative, played by Monica Bellucci, she gets a makeover (and is dazzled by a Valentino handbag), while the sit-down takes place at an upscale Italian restaurant, where she confesses to her nemesis-to-be that “I promised when I came to Italy I would eat as much gnocchi as possible,” at which point he promptly orders every gnocchi dish on the menu. Of course, he’s handsome as well, plying her with Limoncello (which she mistakes for cherry jello) before all this wining and dining leads inevitably to his bedroom, where the fact of him being a mob boss just adds a little more frisson to her fantasy: “If you told me three days ago that I would be in an Italian hotel room with a handsome mob boss…” Even when Kristin accidentally ends up killing him, her best friend Jenny, played by Sophie Nomvete, who she calls back in the States, tells her it’s just a minor romantic hiccup.
From here, the more dangerous Kristin’s situation becomes, the more basic she becomes, as the film both subverts and revels in the trope of the basic bitch, especially as it applies to middle-aged women. She starts the initial sit-down by double-checking what Mafia territory she wants to annex on Google Notes, and continually admits to people that she’s never seen The Godfather, despite continually mentioning it, eventually resorting to the Wikipedia entry so she can keep up with the references that flood the film. Again, this basicness comes down to pasta – from the way she acts, and the way Hardwicke positions her, you’d think that Kristin had never even heard of pasta, despite being a successful and upwardly mobile Italian American. And true to the film’s parodic playfulness, it does actually make you feel like eating pasta, so contagious is Kristin’s joy, and so deliciously does Hardwick frame the pasta we see.
In this way, then, Mafia Mamma eviscerates a certain brand of cinema made by men, for middle-aged women, from the inside. It reminded me of Neil LaBute’s Nurse Betty, which stars Renee Zellweger as a small-town woman who starts to believe that she is a character on a television program after witnessing her husband being scalped and killed. Hardwicke’s film also traffics in the violence of fantasies that are enforced against all odds, by way of a similar combination of fantasy and ultra-violence. This violence is peppered throughout the film, starting with a scene in which Kristin and Bianca banter about the rival boss’ sexual prowess while their Mafia underlings matter-of-factly dismember and dispose of his body in the background. Similarly, a later romantic scene occurs as Kristin picks a finger out of her hair.
However, the centrepiece of the film, and perhaps of Hardwicke’s comic career, ruptures the male gaze (especially the male gaze that animates these Italian escapism films) in one of the most ingeniously literal ways I have ever seen – by fusing eye and scrotum, and then decimating both. It takes place in the midst of a Zoom meeting between Kristin and her colleagues back at a marketing firm in the United States. These colleagues, who are all men, put her on mute while discussing how to nail the middle-aged women’s market, and then promptly fire her as soon as they reactivate her audio. In between, however, Kristin is attacked by a hitman from the rival Mafia family, and has to fight for her life. In the vocabulary of the Italian escapism film, this is the moment when she finds passion, rage, gusto, purpose, artistry – all the things middle-aged women are meant to find in Italy – but she does so through the most brutal eye violence on mainstream screens since the eyegasm sequence in Hostel II (another parody of the way that Americans appropriate Europe as their own). For Kristin removes her stiletto and hammers blow after blow to the assassin’s eyeball and scrotum, which Hardwicke details with a graphic vigour that would make Gasper Noe proud.
This extraordinary sequence consummates the film’s fantasy of an approving and adoring Italian male gaze for the scenes that follow. As soon as she’s committed the torture, and been fired from her American job, Kristin sleeps with her Italian pasta guy for the first time. Similarly, when her Mafia bodyguard finds the corpse, he ratifies that she has found her spirit, telling her that “last night was a true work of art…you have a wild, passionate rage.” He also imagines the aftermath of her violence as a peculiarly potent pasta recipe, and describes it as her own unique take on red sauce, “not just blood, but interesting, with chunks of bone, and bits of flesh stuffed into the eye socket.” For all Kristin’s ignorance of the Godfather trilogy, this moment of passion effects a similar shift to Godfather III, as she takes the Mafia family corporate, brings in Big Pharma, and so transitions from street drugs to viticulture and legal pills. We witness this transition in an inspirational montage sequence that could – almost – be straight out of Under the Tuscan Sun, while any moral panic is contained by the twist that her pasta lover is also an undercover cop, resulting in a cursory trial in which her Italian fantasy is parodically prosecuted, only to come out stronger, weirder and funnier than before.
Mafia Mamma ends by doubling down on the gore-fine dining nexus, as Kristin allows her final nemesis to fall into a grape crusher, and uses his blood to market a new varietal – a rose named Little Pinky. She sends the first bottle to the rival Mafia family, with the victim’s finger inside, and from there goes on to commence what seems set to be the most successful enterprise in her own family’s criminal history. The last two shots say it all – first, a door closing in Kristin’s face, in an inversion of the final sequence in The Godfather, when Kaye is shut out once and for all from the world of male affairs; and then, a slow-motion shot of Kristin’s own face, at the head of her dining table, laughing and convulsing into a hyperbolised ditzy, inane, self-parodic high. Between those two poles lies the brilliance of Mafia Mamma.