Monday, August 24, 2015

The Godfather: Part IV

A gilded carriage pulled by six black plumed horses, followed by anything between 250 and 600 cars. And then, upon arrival, a church covered in giant images of the deceased, a low-flying helicopter dropping thousands of rose petals over the mourners, and a brass band playing ‘Speak Softly, Love’ – better known as the theme from The Godfather. This was the funeral in Rome last week of Vittorio Casamonica, head of the Casamonica family which oversees drug trafficking, prostitution and racketeering in the so-called ‘eastern quadrant’ of the city.

Vittorio Casaonica, King or Rome

You conquered Rome – Now you will conquer Paradise

The parish priest explained that he didn’t know anything about it, that he was just asked to celebrate a funeral mass, as is his duty. He claimed not to have noticed how the façade of his church had been festooned, and anyway he’s not responsible for what happens outside, in the square. As for the municipal police, which was accused of having stopped traffic to allow the procession through and to have escorted the hearse, they were also apparently unaware, and they couldn’t very well be expected to shoot down the helicopter, now, could they? Speaking of which: it took off from Naples, veered off the authorised flight path and dipped under the minimum allowed altitude to deliver its floral homage. The pilot has had his licence suspended and looks to be the only individual who will suffer any consequences for the inability of the Italian state and local institutions to prevent the very large and very public apotheosis of a mafia boss from taking place in the nation’s capital.

Not that this kind of thing is unprecedented, even in recent times. There was the case last year of the festivities in Oppido Mamertina, Calabria, when the statue of the Virgin Mary carried on the streets of the town was made to ‘bow’ in front of the house where the elderly local boss Giuseppe Mazzagatti is spending the remainder of his life sentence, having been spared incarceration due to his deteriorating health. Or that time in 2011 when the popular Festa dei Gigli in Naples was turned into a public celebration of the heads of the Cuccaro family, Angelo and Antonio, who paraded in a white Excalibur to the acclamation of the crowd before asking that a minute of silence be observed ‘in memory of their dead’.

Here, too, the band played the theme from The Godfather. Here, too, local authorities were left scrambling to explain how a public event, which by its own nature requires planning and organization so that people be a part of it, could come as a total surprise to public officials.

Back when I was a young man, a leading figure in the governing Christian Democratic party famously declared that ‘the mafia doesn’t exist’, or that if it ever did it had long since been defeated. That was the dominant strategy for decades after the war: not to celebrate but to subsume and normalise; not to emphasise but to quietly integrate organised crime into the machinery of the state and of consensus, even against the truculent backdrop of daily killings in the epicentres of clan war. For the populous South was always, among the many forms in which it was exploited, a ‘reservoir of votes’ to be mobilised by the ruling centre-right, Christian coalition.

The soundtrack to these modern celebrations – be they festivals or funerals – symbolises a shift that runs parallel with the crumbling of the old, monolithic power structures. Playing a song that was never local or traditional, yet ensures the instant global recognition of a national anthem, signals that the mafia is no longer interested in hiding, but demands to be acknowledged, respected and celebrated for what it is. Accordingly, all of these events involve a power struggle, with the mafia attempting to exert its control over local institutions – church, police, politicians – against their centres.

The bowing of the Virgin Mary in Oppido Mamertina, for instance – which was played down by the local Mayor but caused representatives of the state police to leave the procession in protest – was seen by some as a response to the Pope’s calling two weeks earlier for the excommunication of the mafiosi. On the same day, 200 convicts in the Larini prison went ‘on strike’ against the Church by refusing to attend mass.

Vittorio Casamonica’s funeral shines much the same light on Italy’s institutions: a priest who failed to notice how his church had suddenly been redecorated, versus the Pope; representatives of the municipal and state police versus the mayor and the Minister of the Interior. And if you think that the Pope, the Mayor and the Minister are more powerful, consider who it is who actually exercised power: who it is who stopped the traffic, and played their anthem in a public square; who it is who bent aviation rules so that they could perform a grand, theatrical gesture, and drop flowers on their people.

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