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Mafia cinema

Mafia to microfinance guru

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ON THE JOB: Amenta in a script session;and with Muhammad Yunus (right)

His first film, Diario di una siciliana ribelle, sent the feared Cosa Nostra into a tizzy. Threats and lawsuits became commonplace in the life of Marco Amenti, the Sicilian-born director whose blood boils at the mention of the mafia. Notwithstanding intimidatory tactics, he went a step ahead with his next documentary, Il fantasma di Corleone (The Ghost of Corleone), about the life of Bernardo Provenzano, head of the Corleonesi and the capo di tutti capi, boss of bosses of the Sicilian mafia. During the Golden Globe-nominated film's screening, the iconic Godfather was arrested for a 1963 murder conviction, after an unparalleled 43 years on the run.

It's the 'men of honour' perception about the mafia that Amenta is determined to erase. "There's no honour, they're terrible people, " he says scathingly. As a child who grew up in Palermo, he realised that the influence of the mafia is so immense, nobody can escape it. "One of their primary socio-political achievements is the destruction of the meritocracy, " he says. That's what inspired him to take up his next project, La Siciliana Ribelle, a real-life story about Rita Atria, daughter of a mob boss who, to avenge her kin's death, deposes before the State, breaking the sacred mafia code of Omerta, i. e. silence. To an extent, Atria is to the mafia what Anne Frank was to the Nazis.

"A young girl fighting a very powerful enemy is a great inspiration, and it's a possibility everywhere, whether it's mafia, terrorism or anything else. " Unfortunately, he says, "it's easier to fall into the fascination of evil, " which is why the mafia are generally portrayed as reasonable men (Godfather etc) rather than the criminals they are. He also maintains it's easier to tell the story of the bad guy rather than the good, yet he prefers to make films that inspire rather than merely entertain. That's how he stumbled upon the idea to make the biopic of Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel prize for peace for his Grameen Bank, that empowered millions of Bangladeshis. It was Yunus' autobiography, Banker to the Poor, that struck Amenta hard, and he quickly bought exclusive rights to adapt it to film. The lead role is likely to be played by Irrfan Khan, and the movie will be shot in India and Bangladesh. Though primarily a European production, he's presently looking for an Indian co-producer and intends to use an Indian cast too.

Amenta, who was introduced to Yunus' work much before the latter won the Nobel, says it's important to portray the stories of good people through film. And, he says, it's an established fact that audiences are maturing and would rather see a good, deep story than some shallow movie held together by special effects. He cites the example of Hurt Locker that beat Avatar, and Slumdog Millionaire that beat The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the Academy Awards. He is also optimistic about the Italian film industry, which suffered badly during the recession. It is getting steadily back on its feet, he says, and it's a matter of pride that European films are now being shown in theatres in the insular United States, as well as winning awards worldwide.

Amenta's mission to portray the good via film is largely due to the influence of his father, an accomplished Sicilian doctor who spurned career opportunities to go to Rome, preferring to stay and serve his fellow-Sicilians. Amenta says he later regretted his decision because he couldn't achieve his potential as a doctor, mainly due to his uncompromising nature and the influence of the mafia on virtually every sphere of Sicilian life, which dictated that sycophants always score over the meritorious. La Siciliana Ribelle begins with 'To our father' (his sister was co-producer ), and he says it was his dad who influenced him to go abroad for career opportunities, having become disillusioned with Sicilian life.

It is this, Amenta says, which is the hidden side of the mafia. "Everyone knows about the crime and the killings, but the mafia also kills the hope and joy of many people. " Yet, he says the mafia has become considerably less vicious over the last few years. "A lot of their money is now invested in perfectly legitimate businesses, and they don't kill as much as they used to. " However, "their influence in politics remains as strong as ever, " with it being a routine for the mafia to give votes, and the politicians to give protection. Yet, things are changing. La Siciliana Ribelle won the Gold Ticket, given to the most-screened film in Italian schools. Apart from his native Italian, he also speaks Sicilian, French, Spanish and English. His long hair and rugged Sicilian looks sometimes can be misleading. "When I was in Britain and learning English, the police once asked me to come to the police station for a criminal identification parade, " he says, adding that the only words he understood were 'witness' and 'crime', making him wonder what he had done wrong.

Finally, anything about Italy he would like to change? "Berlusconi, " he says, wondering aloud why a largely honest population would elect such a dishonest man to represent them. "99 per cent Italians are honest, law-abiding citizens who work hard to make a living, and I don't see why they elect this man. " Berlusconi, known worldwide for his continuous stream of gaffes and affairs with teenage girls and other women who are not his wife, has stifled the growth of education, science and development, according to Amenta. Also, he says his goofs, which are frequently taken note of by the world's media, are a facade which hides the real problems of Italy, the most important among which is the brain drain of prime Italian talent. So why doesn't Amenta make a film on him? "Because it would have to be a fictional account, and the reality will always be worse than that."

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