In Italy, it's generally assumed that almost everything is a little bit corrupt. This is a country, after all, where the former Prime Minister controlled much of the country's media and pushed through parliament multiple laws to protect himself from criminal prosecution; virtually nothing gets done without connections, small bribes, or simply ignoring the rules (which no one seems to follow anyway). It's also cynically assumed that there's a degree of truth in even the worst mutterings about the country's institutions, from its fabled soccer league (where the suggestion that referees help Juventus win was recently proven true by wiretaps) to its government.
Because of those circumstance, it surprised almost no one in the 1980s when the Mafia began to take over Palermo, Sicily. What was surprising, however, is that something was done about it: Magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino led a virtually unprecedented crackdown, and as a result of the "Maxi Trials," hundreds of mafiosi, from foot soldier to general, were brought to justice and convicted; briefly, Palermo was reclaimed. In 1992, Falcone and Borsellino were spectacularly murdered by the mafia for their troubles; in the words of a weeping older magistrate, "E finito tutto" -- the fight was all over.
Journalist Alexander Stille documented Falcone and Borsellino and their struggles in his 1995 book, Excellent Cadavers; the film of the same name treads the same ground, hanging an examination of the anti-mafia trial and the fate of their magistrates on Stille's own trip to Palermo. In addition to Stille's narration, the story is given life through interviews with Falcone and Borsellino's associates, period television footage and Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia's searing photographs of mafia crime scenes. Though Stille's presence quickly becomes irritating (How many shots do we need to see of him wandering Sicily, deep in thought?) the story alone is strong enough to hold our attention, and the heart-felt testimony of anti-mafia magistrates is deeply affecting.
Starting with a brief history of the mafia in Sicily, director Marco Turco takes us through the organization's increasing dominance in Palermo; at one point in 1982, there was a mafia killing every three days in the city. Some of those killings left behind "excellent cadavers": Those belonging to members of the government who were also involved with the mafia. Interestingly, the close ties between the mafia and the Sicilian government go back to the end of World War II, when Allied forces used the mafia to keep order, appointing local chiefs to official government positions. Later, those same men and their supporters increased their involvement in the government as communism gained strength in Italy: The mafia allied themselves with the opposition (primarily the Christian Democrats), and were a key to keeping the electoral power of communist-leaning parties much lower in Sicily than it was in the rest of Italy.
Thanks in large part to the testimony of Tommaso Buscetta, a former mafiosi who had fled to Brazil to avoid both a prison sentence and the brewing mafia war (and who lost 14 members of his family to that war) and the tireless work and bravery of Borsellino and Falcone and their "mafia pool" of investigators, 495 members of the Sicilian mafia were brought to trial in 1986. The Maxi Trials took place in a newly built underground courtroom, guarded on the exterior by military vehicles and filled with armed guards, bulletproof glass and fascinated spectators. Disappointingly, the trial section of the movie drags terribly, for several reasons. First of all, the televised courtroom footage is understandably painfully bland and unvaried, particularly for an audience unfamiliar with most of the faces on display. Second, once the audience gets over the shock of seeing dozens of defendants sitting together in cages at the back of the courtroom, and witnesses perched awkwardly at tiny school desks before the judges, the days in court are nothing more than a long procession of names and associations; eventually, it becomes almost impossible to follow. Additionally, no matter how intellectually impressive they are, the moments in court wield none of the power of Battaglia's incredible photographs or the modern-day interviews with magistrates involved in the mafia pool.
Excellent Cadavers is at its most powerful when it lets the men and women involved in the Maxi Trial speak for themselves. Falcone, in particular, is a profoundly impressive person. He clearly regrets the path his life has taken: He lives under armed guard, and in the days leading up to the trials, he and Borsellino actually were placed in a remote prison for their own safety. He knows, however, that what he's doing is important, and may eventually bring hope and change to his home. Most movingly, he doesn't deny being frightened. Instead, he simply says that he's learning to live with fear. Both men, very obviously, were aware of the risks they took every day, and understood they took those risks for a cause larger and more important than themselves. In a time and field in which ego is frequently a driving force, to see two men so free of pretense doing such important work is surprisingly moving.
Further evidence of their significance beyond the Maxi Trials is offered in the movie's desperately sad coda, when the murders we know are coming finally occur. Despite the fact that we've known both men were killed from the start of the film, their deaths are shocking in the way they arrive, and horrifying in their brutality. Instead of relying on funeral footage or television coverage of the events, Turco takes his camera to the offices of Borsellino and Falcone's closest professional confidants, and lets them speak. Shot in extreme closeup with subtitles moved unobtrusively to the lowest portion of the screen, the pain in the faces is as raw as if the deaths had occurred only days before, instead of more than a decade ago. And not one of the magistrates speaks about the professional legacies of the men. Those who are able to speak recall smells, words, and sights from those horrible last days, but many simply sit, tears running down their faces. Their utter heartbreak is vividly reflected in the entire population of Sicily in the wake of the murders; despite temporary changes that grew out of the indignation felt by the entire country at Borsellino and Falcone's deaths, nothing, really, has changed.