Often misunderstood and mis-romanticized—and such was the power of Mario Puzo’s Godfather screen adaptation—the mob genre is mistakenly celebrated at each cycle of reinvention. The Italian mafia in films has undergone a persistent makeover, resurrecting in newer, grimier skin each time around to the shortsighted delight of amnesiac critics. When The Sopranos was hailed as a gritty ode to America’s ages-old vicarious thrillseeking via its Italo American diaspora, it was as if backroom deals weren’t incessantly struck in hole-in-the-wall Missouri diners and ethnic markets courtesy of Scorsese a decade or so prior.
All told, dispensing with the familiar was merely a departure from a fetishized New York setting eclipsed by the beginnings of TV legitimacy considering its culprit was only a stone throw’s away in Joisy. And unless Tony’s self-styled proclamations of grandeur weren’t to be taken seriously, it showed an egregious error on account of its writers or a case of sublime nuance in lending hypocrisy and delusions to a manipulative character when his two-bit, small-time ass proved too puny to grab headlines and and turn paparazzi heads after every other sidewalk dust-up.
No less, it seemed that for a while for a crime film to have a shot to appeal, one either had to omit ethnicity—reduce the tomatoe sauce—, adapt a Elmore Leonard novel, or move the story a few zip codes over so long as the Italian-New York combo is broken. Like a choice of two toppings in a Black Jack special with the small print restricting one to a type of meat. That’s all that’s left. Except every so often a new film comes along, buoyed by a bona-fide spin, presenting the genre a newer lifeline. A Quiet Life, like Gomorrah before it, is precisely one such film, for what carries within tinges of familiar mob tropes emerging late in the proceedings is, elsewhere, diluted in a tantalizing, low-key thriller. Reduce the sauce, Carmine, reduce the sauce.
Much of this restraint is due in no small part to its German setting and the ever reliable Toni Serillo as a runaway hitman of the Neapolitan Camorra. Long presumed to be dead or simply too far out of reach of retributive hands, he’d resettled with a new wife under a different identity. Rosario, now a chef operating a boutique hotel in the woods, throws lavish dinners with a ragtag set of cooks and servers in tow. A success story of reintegration and a calling found late that is disrupted when two younger hitmen from the same clan ride into town on a job. Not for his head. But something to do with an impending dumping site deal that the mob back in Naples doesn’t want signed and when the duo have to indefinitely stay in Germany, Diego, suggests they visit Rosario, simply explained to the hot-headed Edoardo as possible “backing.”
It went over my head partly because of choppy subtitles when during their first proper exchange early the next day exposition revealed that Diego is Rosario’s son whom he abandoned as to stoke the ruse of being dead. Quite how heavily this burden weighs on him now is inconsequential for such cutthroat types, and the bond is never played up to more than a one-sided embrace and hollow attempts at reconciliation. And indeed, his hospitality is more a calculated move than an extended olive branch when Rosario offers boarding indefinitely with the proviso that he is kept out of their business. Yet despite a sordid baggage firmly behind as far his new life is concerned, the past is a sleeping dog best euthanized if not safely pacified, and old habits die hard. And he simply can’t stay out of their business for long for it is a matter of survival, proving Vito Corleone’s axiom to be enduring. Keep your enemies closer. It takes thief to catch a thief, and so on. The film straddles this fine line between charade and a need for closure, tension and pretension, truth and half-truths. Serillo dominates the ensemble’s share of fleshed-out characterization, and far from a flaw; a story like this can only hold one crux. And as it crescendos in typical gangster fashion, proving that once in a life of crime it is easier to revert to old ways, genre aficionados will at least be all smiles as the continuation of scruffy dressing involves a highway diner and its surrounding seclusion. A fine piece of European cinema.