Sunday, 12 December 2010

Romanzo Criminale

Having written of a real gang which controlled London throughout the 1960’s, corrupting senior politicians both main political parties and gaining supporters among leading personalities of the day I decided to watch Romanzo Criminale which has similarities with the Banda della Magliana, the notorious brotherhood which dominated Roman crime between 1970 and 1990.

Contrary to popular understanding the Sicilian Costa Nostra is only one of the Italian regional crime syndicates. The Mafia has always been a loose federation of criminal families taking over districts, cities and towns and which spread to the USA and to Australia as consequence of emigration in the nineteenth century. It is estimated there are100 such families in the Palermo region with four to five thousands members. As a consequence of internal war and government crackdown as many as 1000 members have been killed and many others imprisoned where the government has gone to great lengths to stop them continuing to run their organisations from prison. The “family” compromise the familiar head and deputy, legal adviser and captains of the groups of soldiers. Over recent decades the emphasis has been on creating legitimate business with an estimated turnover of 120 billion USA dollars in Italy alone.

The most powerful crime organisation in Italy comes from Calabria, the M’drangheta or Honoured society with an estimated twenty thousand members with is income estimated in 2007 to be around fifty to sixty billion dollars in Italy to come mainly from drug trafficking although it also has legitimate businesses such as supermarkets, restaurants and construction. There are estimated 100 families and four to five thousand members in the region but there are groups in other parts of Italy, Spain, Portugal Germany, and Holland, Belgium. The USA, Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe, Columbia and the UK. The M’drangheta only recruit through blood relationships which lead to stronger units. The Camorra is also Southern Italy based in the Campania region around Naples and is older that than the Cosa Nostra, more violent and includes protection rackets as well as drugs. The clans act independently so there are constant violent feuds but have gown substantially with over 100 units around Naples and over 6000 members. They are reported to control 2500 bakeries in Naples, the distribution of milk, fish and coffee. Their main interest is Prostitution, Gambling and Blackmail. They have also become involved with Nigerian drug gangs and the Albanian Mafia. In the UK there was an attempt to control Aberdeen because the city had no history of organised crime. The Sacra Corona Unita (United Sacred Crown) is the smallest of the organisation with an estimated 2000 members from the Puglia region in the 1970’s as a breakaway from that Camorra. Among their specialist interests are loan sharking and money laundering, pornography, gambling and kidnapping with links to the Russian Mafia, Serbian Mafia Columbia as well as Albania and Sicily.

In the film a group of delinquents leave their home town and set out to become successful criminals in Rome with the nicknames Lebanese, Ice, Dandy and Grand with the latter dying at the hideout after crashing through a police road block. Some years later after minor crimes and imprisonment the idea of kidnapping and extortion is put into practice. The victim is killed but the ransom paid and instead of dividing the sum five sixth is put into the pot to buy drugs as the first steps in taking over Rome as the Krays had taken over London. In the reality there was a kidnapping of the Duke of Massimilano Grazioli Lante della Rovere in 1977, he was murdered, the ransom obtained and with the money invested in crime in Rome with the intention of taking control. While the film focuses on the lives of three men and their loves it is set against the background of real events in which the group flourished. This included involvement with new fascists groups such as Nuclei Armati Rivolzionari responsible for the 1980 bombing in Bologna. The Secret services( SISMI), the Grand Master of the Freemason Lodge Propaganda Due P2 and a Nato clandestine anti communist organization. In the film they called in to help find the location of kidnapped Prime Minister Aldo Moro. In real life they were linked to the former Grey Wolves Member who made the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.
The group was unusual because they acted as partners making equal shares and paying dividends which was maintained through families when individuals were imprisoned. Even when they made money to own villas, Rolexes and driver Ferraris they were expected to continue as criminal labourers.

They were also implicated with others in the murder of Roberto Calvi of the Banco Ambrosiano in London in 1982 where the main share holder was the Vatican Bank. The bank crashed after it was established to have laundered money for the Mafia channelling funds to the Polish Solidarity Movement and the Contras in Nicaragua. In 1983 a fifteen year old Roman girl disappeared and later there was evidence that a member of the gang was among those who tried to broker a deal with the Vatican for her “release” in exchange for the attempted murderer of Pope John Paul. A feature of the film, and of the reality of the these groups is that they depend on a network of paid or terrorised informants in the judicial systems, police, prosecutors, magistrates and judges, as within the prison service, customs and border controls.

It was a grey wet day all day. I did not go out until after lunch with posting a packet at the post office my first call and then finding that there were a few copies of the Mail at Smiths and able to obtain the DVD. I needed a cup of tea and a sit down while it rained and enjoyed reading the paper. There was no Prime Minister’s Question Time earlier, presumably because it was half term, and an article the paper revealed that the Tory gap over Labour had risen again to 20 points. The weekly attacks and media reporting has clearly had their effects as well as dissatisfaction with what has happened with the need to fund bankers on astronomical incomes and bonuses while Members of the Cabinet, particular the Home Secretary exploits the rules to get the best level of expenses without understanding how this looks to workers being made redundant and those running businesses who cannot get working capital and reasonable rates. It smacks of the abolition of the ten pence tax rate. I remembered to do a second check on composition of shops and stores realising that I had missed two card shops two shoe shops, two jewellers, two sports wear and several others. A third shoe shop is closing as has a larger fashion store and there was one other bakery. Interestingly there is only one small Travel agent but others elsewhere, one Noble’s amusements and one bookmaker.

I enjoyed a chicken escalope with beans for lunch and soup with a gammon salad in the evenings. A banana and grapes and not hot cross buns.

It is easy to see that Doubt was originally a stage play an despite the brilliance of the acting of Meryl Streep, Hoffman and the rest of the cast the film, and as I understand also the play lacks an effective ending.
The story is set in a private White mixed Catholic second School in the Bronx with one black pupil. The Catholic Parish appears to only have a teaching role in terms of the basketball and the rest of the staff is an order of nuns headed by Streep. She is a traditional strict disciplinarian who teachers as well as pupils are afraid of and she has a view that children will commit sin unless they are closely monitored. Two of the pupils, including the black boy serve at mass, and one of the younger Sisters who believes the children should find learning fun and inspirational, reports concerns about the relationship between the parish priest and the boy when she smells alcohol on the breath of the boy. When the Streep, Sister Aloysius, confronts the priest he explains that the boy had been reported to him and because he knew something of the home circumstances and the way the boy was being treated by other pupils he had covered up something which would have meant the boy should not continue to serve at mass.

I was concerned about aspects of authenticity although I do not know how the Catholic parishes operated in New York State at the time and certainly they were advance in operating mixed sex denominational schools something which did not exist in England at that time except at the junior/preparatory level, as in common with the Grammar schools there were separate schools for boys and girls. The first point is that in England there would not have been just two serving alter boys for the weekend masses, especially those with a choir and sermon and for masses celebrated in this way there would be two or three priests, and half a dozen alter boys part of a larger team who would have training sessions, a rota with, standby substitutes to cover for holidays, and sickness. As in the film roles were divided but everyone was trained to do any role in case someone failed to turn up as scheduled.

At both the junior and secondary level it was customary for the school to hold a mass once a week and on special Saint Days. At the primary school, the oldest class, may be two, of ten to 12 year olds and about thirty pupils in total, attended the ordinary week daytime mass, where older boys served at the mass in their last year. There were only four or five of us and only two were required for the mass which was a simple one lasting about half an hour where as the full versions, sung and with sermon would last an hour and longer at Christmas and Easter. The boys serving at the mass would make our own way back to the school about half a mile away and sometimes we would be given a cigarette and on a few instances those who wished were given a taste of the wine which unlike the Anglican Eucharist was not given to the parishioners.

The maid of the household of one of the boys found part of a cigarette in his trousers, reported to the parents who then reported to the school head when learning its origin held a meeting of all the serving boys and the priest who was made to apologise while the head mistress who was not a nun, made it clear we were not to smoke or drink. At the secondary school we had out own Chapel where the whole school attended the weekly mass and during one of the years pupils were required to serve at mass once a term given the numbers involved. This was more frightening than at the parish church less one forgot the Lain responses or the timing of what one had to do.

The film and play opens with the priest giving a sermon about doubt and there are two other instances if I remember correctly of mini sermons and in all three instances they are unlike those I remember from that time which were formal and strictly based on New Testament texts.

The play and film are constructed around two issues. The first is traditional Catholicism and the new approach which was developed in the fifties into the sixties and which may have been the situation in the parish earlier. The role of the Priest extended beyond that of priest holding masses, confessions, weddings, christenings and funerals, and organising Sunday school in the afternoons. He would have been the spiritual heads and guide to any catholic School which did not have priests on the staff. He visited the homes of parishioners and would have meals when invited. My mother and aunt would invite visiting priests to their home when in their eighties and arranged with a couple from the church to go out for a meal even when my mother had developed the first stages of memory loss. There was also a wide range of organisations and activities attached to the church groups, wife/mother groups, youth groups, for the elderly as well as general social activities and societies such as the St Vincent de Paul, the Knights of St Columba. There are seventy catholic based interest groups recognised although many operate on a diocesan than parish level today, and most having national and international structures. The difference has been between style with the priest and someone like a school head having authority, being a distant even frightening figures and someone with whom parishioners and children could more readily identify with. The problem with some priests and nuns is that they never had experience of a normal adult social relationship, let alone an adult sexual relationship, with priests going to seminary schools as preteens and nuns entering convents directly from care homes. Although part of a large family, my mother was trained by the Sisters to first take Sunday school classes and prepare young children for communion when she was preteen, teaching classes as a teenager at fourteen as well as playing the piano for school hymns and the organ at church.

The interesting aspect of the film and play is that Sister Aloysius was married became a nun at widowhood so she knew something of the world and men. One of her best lines is every easy choice made today will have its consequence tomorrow. She has banned the use of biro bens in the school knowing it will end the skill of penmanship. She confiscates a transistor radio with ear piece from a member of the class and then admits she has becomes addicted to its use, listen to news of course and not music (when did the radio with ear piece become freely on the market?). The problem is that the Sister quickly jumps from father Flynn being a priest who is trying to relate and ingratiate himself with parishioners and the children into a paedophile. This is the second and major issue of the film. Has father Flynn had a sexual relationship or made sexual overtures to the boy. He certainly behaves as if he is guilty when she confronts him with her beliefs about his behaviour after falsely telling him she has made contact with parishioners from his previous placements raises similar questions about his behaviour toward male pupils. He uses his position and the hierarchical structure of the Catholic to prevent her pursuing her beliefs in a way which the audience is left in no doubt of his guilt.

However then here is the final scene, both of play and film, when the nun who first raised the alarm and who has been absent because of a family bereavement, returns to find the head sitting alone outside on a winter’s day where the snow is laying thickly. She confirms that the priest has left the parish, something the audience already knows because he has said farewell to the Parish at a mass, but we now learn that although she reported the situation to the Bishop, the priest has been appointed to a new parish with a bigger school so that in effect he has been promoted. She then admits to having doubts because although his reaction to the her information that she had contacedt the previous parish appeared to confirm her suspicions, she had to admit she was bluffing and that she is no longer as certain as she was of his guilt.

I felt that this was a more honest and realistic ending than most critics have commented although it is a cinematic and dramatic let down. What the film and play achieves is to explain the nature of the Catholic church hierarchy which despite the extensive social networking did result in the widespread sexual and physical abuse of children and adult parishioners until general exposure in the 990’s and the decision to create more effective safety machinery within all parishes.

I have mentioned before that I admire the cinema reviews of James Berardinelli because he is consistently objective and brings a thoughtful and wider perspective to his assessments. He begins his review with these profound words, “It is one of life’s bitter ironies that one of the first things lost to moral certainty of the capacity for compassion. Righteousness is a cold, hard position, and an unshakeable one and allows no room for one of the most basic tenants of human existence, doubt” However it is this reality which the unscrupulous use and not helped by the adversarial British legal system instead of one based on an inquiry to establish the facts and hopefully the truth. The test beyond all reasonable doubt protects those false accused but it provides machinery for the guilty and sympathetic lawyers to defeat justice.
I liked aspects of film which provided hints why the priest and the boy developed a bond. The priest show feminine qualities such a liking for pressed flowers and clean nails. The boy’s mother also hints that her son has revealed a feminine nature and which causes a negative reaction in his father and this leads the Brussats in their Spirituality and Practice review that this explains a relationship without necessarily involving a sexual intimacy: the priest saw in the boy what he had learnt to see in himself. However I also have to add that professionally I was once involved with a similar young man because the courts where as a consequence of specialist psychiatric treatment, it was discovered he had been seduced several years earlier by a family friend and where as a consequence of the treatment his personality changed, and the relationship with the father became a positive one. The character in the story was right that questioning the child, however carefully was unlikely to reveal the truth. The boy I mentioned was unable to communicate with me or anyone until the treatment and I remember when I nice lady came to visit when I was aged between eight and ten years as part of an application for me to be taken into care because of the continuing lack of accommodation which meant I was sharing a bed with three adults. She asked who my mother was and about my father. I said my father had died in the war and that my mother was my aunt. How much of this was under instruction or simply made up I cannot remember.

I remember being afraid of what was to happen to me and in general being afraid of anyone who asked a question about my parentage. It was several decades later before I was able to talk about it.

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