LIST CANDIDATE: TO DIE FOR TANO [TANO DA MORIRE] (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Roberta Torre

FEATURING: Ciccio Guarino, Mimma De Rosalia

PLOT: The movie tells the story of the life and death of Palermo mafioso Tano Guarrasi—and

Still from To Die for Tano (1997)

of the newfound freedom of his four ugly sisters who stayed spinsters because no man was brave enough to marry them—in song and dance.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  It’s weird, but given its status as an almost completely unknown movie, it’s not quite outrageously outlandish enough to earn a spot on the List on the first ballot.  A musical production telling the life story of a contemptible macho bully in styles ranging from disco to “gangsta” rap would be strange enough, but director Roberta Torre adds in bizarre dream sequences involving dancing chickens and every 1970s LSD drug trip camera effect she can afford, and films the entire mess as if she’s the long-lost love child of Maya Deren and George Kuchar.  It’s rambunctious and the energy gets to you, but it’s held back by its extreme amateurism (bad singing and choreography can gets wearisome over an hour’s time), and also by the fact that no compelling story or characters ever emerge from the sketch-upon-sketch structure.  Still, it’s one of those movies you may want to track down just so you’ll have something to make your co-workers’ eyes bug out on Monday morning when you talk around the water cooler about what you watched over the weekend.  Recommended for those hunting the obscurest oddities, and anyone who reads this site regularly is likely to find it at least amusing.

COMMENTS:  There’s something gratifying about seeing Sicily’s murderous thugs depicted as a crew of mincing ninnies.  The fact that this gangster spoof is enacted by residents of the city that suffered during the mob’s gangland wars only adds to the elation; their open mockery of their criminal overlords feels brave and subversive, and transmutes the silliness into a strange sort of grandeur.  Though shot in 1997, Tano almost looks like a 1970s production, from the washed out color to the grotesque-looking amateur actors, cheap props and camera tricks, and general “pop avant-garde” feel of an Andy Warhol or John Waters production.  The story (based on real-life events) jumps about in time, usually for little obvious reason, and there are numerous digressions for flashbacks and the absurd musical numbers that are the film’s raison d’être.  The translator earns extra credit for rendering all the songs in rhyme, especially since that practice often results in odd-sounding couplets like “I’ll beat up guys who treat my words like figs/Spit on those who rat to the pigs.”  (Humor is the hardest translation job, and one almost always gets a sense of strangeness rather than of hilarity when watching a popular comedy from another country’s national cinema).  The choreography is, at best, ragged, but if you’re watching this it’s probably not for the hoofing. The music is as appropriately cheesy as the rest of the production, but composer Nino D’Angelo shows wit and fluency in a wide variety of styles.  The song and dance numbers include a Sharks vs. Jets-style beatdown complete with bad fat Elvis kung-fu moves; a homoerotic disco strut inspired by Saturday Night Fever; a 50s rock and roll boogie woogie duet between Tano and his teenage daughter; a fado sung by a mafia wife with pink hair; and a rap performed during a stroll through Palermo by a cast of dozens.  Though the disco and rap numbers are the most memorable, featuring hummable melodies, the strangest interlude is the daddy/daughter duet.  It’s performed on a stylized set evoking the gangster’s butcher shop, with dead poultry and lengths of intestine hanging off ropes like drying laundry; both performers grab the cuts of meat to use as ersatz microphones, and invisible squawking chickens solo at the instrumental break (accompanied by an air guitarist playing a length of tripe).  Even though this entire Mafia musical enterprise is already repellently weird to the average person, director Roberta Torre adds experimental oddities on top of the already bizarre base layer.  Tano is not played by Guarino alone; a Halloween-surplus store plaster skull with light up ping pong ball eyes takes a turn portraying the mafioso, post-mortem.  As a child, Tano dreams of chickens slamdancing on stage to Italian folk music, which explains none of his later behavior.  A mafia presenter dresses in gold lame kitty ears and a half-shirt paws the air and meows as he introduces made men.  A crescent moon taunts a young girl: “You’ll never get married!”  When a hairdresser freaks out when her clients start gossiping about her, she starts repeating a single soprano note while red, green, and blue lights flash and plastic bats descend from the ceiling.  It’s that sort of a movie, with one mad idea following another and everything feeling like its being made up on the spot by a director who’s having enormous fun. If you crave continual craziness, To Die for Tano dishes it out like an Italian mama serving marinara sauce to an underweight child.

To Die for Tano was a cult hit in Italy.  Director Roberta Torre went on to direct another surreal musical (based on Romeo and Juliet) before settling down into more mainstream mafia dramas and thrillers, but she never received as much acclaim for her other projects as for the low-budget Tano.  The film was not released in the U.S. until 2010, when its brief run in New York City theaters garnered reviews ranging from the nonplussed to the nearly ecstatic.  Video distributors passed on this eccentric film, and it can currently only be purchased from the official site.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…everything from character sides to full on musical numbers with a chorus and Act curtains, and some absolutely Avant-garde moments of surrealism reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky (See: El Topo) and Dali—on crack.”–Tim Cogshell, Box Office Magazine (2010 American release)

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