If you want to have a more authentic experience of Italian culture, you are better off visiting an Olive Garden.


Who doesn’t like a good mafia film? It has action, intrigue, the beautiful landscape of Italy filling every frame, violence, and much more. Combine it with great leads in Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci, and surely you would have another entertaining film in the long history of this genre. Unfortunately, director Catherine Hardwicke and her talented cast cannot keep this film from flying off the cliff and hitting every mafia cliche they can on the way down.

Starting with the title, Mafia Mamma is already showing red flags. The title demonstrates the desire and the dedication to utilize alliteration more than it is an indication of what the film is about. It also doesn’t help that Toni Collette’s character amalgamation of a couple of characters from other properties that don’t seem to fit together in this, despite her best efforts. The end result of all of this is a Mafia Mamma Mess.

The basic synopsis of this film is that when Don Giuseppe Balbano (Allessandro Bressanello) is gunned down, his faithful assistant/assassin Bianca (Monica Bellucci) sets out to carry out his wish that his estranged granddaughter Kristen (Toni Collette) be made the new head of the Balbano crime family. Kristen, however, has never met her grandfather. Her mother moved her to America as a child to protect her from the dangers of being related to a crime family. Kristen is now the furthest thing from a Mafia boss. This is where parts of her character sort of embodies an oblivious Elle Woods, Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde. Not the bubbly personality that ingratiates Elle into the legal profession, but the more caught off guard as life happens around her person at the beginning of Legally Blonde when she believes she is being proposed to and instead finds herself broken up with. Kristen likewise finds her family falling apart and takes an invitation to attend the funeral of her unknown grandfather, all expenses paid, as a way to change things up. Much like Elle going to Harvard.

When she gets there, she continues to play aloof while things happen to her. She misses all the iconic spots in Rome as she is being driven to the funeral. Why? Because she is changing clothes in the backseat of the car. She is lied to constantly by Bianca about the nature of the family business, and doesn’t really catch on what is happening even though her cousin Fabrizio (Eduardo Scarpetta) embodies the full mafia lifestyle and resents her for being in Italy. Once she is let in on the truth, and the reality that she may have to go along with this new role in the short term, the film takes a tonal shift, but forgets to fully take Collette’s Kristen along with it.

At this point, Kristen is still going into situations with innocence and kindness (the humor of course being that she is conducting mafia business in total contrast to how it is always portrayed), but the tonal shift introduces a hyper-violent and sexualization of many of the characters. The violence is on par with Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, which worked fantastically in its action-fueled satire. Here it is simply a piece of the puzzle that just doesn’t fit with the other pieces. Kristen continues the dual-personality of achieving unbelievable violence along with the continued “what is happening to me” aloofness. Bellucci’s Bianca is a character that is not really useful to the overall story. She becomes the in-story narrator of sorts telling Kristen, and by extension us, all the information we need to know to tie this story together as it happens, but then disappears for much of the larger action pieces until the end. Her prosthetic leg and backstory are a forced storyline for a very surface reason and for a stunt prop in the climax of the film.

Mafia Mamma doesn’t seem to know what type of film it is trying to be. Kristen is a mom, but her son Domenick (Tommy Rodger) is there in the beginning as he heads off to college, has one phone call, and then inexplicably shows up in Italy with Kristen’s loser husband Paul (Tim Daish) for the finale, with no organic explanation. Everything feels wedged in. The climax of the film even has a weird time-lapse going on just to speed up Kristen climbing up, and later down, a flight of stairs. Its a very disjointed effort, with a lot of tell-don’t-show (instead of the usual show-don’t-tell), that caters to the worst stereotypes about Italy, and Italian culture, and the mafia films it constantly references. If its meant to be a spoof, then it falls short on that front as well.

If you want to have a more authentic experience of Italian culture, you are better off visiting an Olive Garden. At the Olive Garden, you will not being eating anything like you would if you were in Italy, and it represents nothing of authentic Italian culture. That is Mafia Mamma. Unlike Mafia Mamma, however, at the Olive Garden you would at least feel like they made a reasonable effort to present something that looks like what you might experience in Italian culture. To complete the analogy, Mafia Mamma is simply like a stale Olive Garden breadstick who has sat out too long. It hints at something you might like if only you were experiencing it as it should be. That’s what I felt like watching this film. To borrow a phrase from a much better mafia film, seeing this film is definitely an offer you CAN refuse.