Though organized crime features prominently in the Quebec news cycle (and, depending on where you live, work and hang out, in Quebec daily life), the same cannot be said about the Quebec film industry. Besides the Omerta TV series and its belated, only fitfully successful film adaptation in 2011, the mob is more likely to appear on the front page of a newspaper than on the silver screen in Quebec.
Perhaps part of it is proximity or familiarity. It’s in the paper every day and in American movies all the time, which doesn’t necessarily make it a pressing topic for filmmakers. Perhaps part of it is complexity. After all, the operations of the mafia in Quebec are tightly intertwined with bikers and street gangs, which automatically makes any story you may choose to tell broader and more complicated.
In any case, it’s both surprising and pretty expected that no one has really attempted to tackle the legacy of organized crime in Quebec on the silver screen prior to Podz’s Mafia Inc. Using a book by André Cédilot and André Noël as a base, Mafia Inc. tells the mostly fictionalized story of Vince Gamache (Marc-André Grondin), the son of a humble tailor (Gilbert Sicotte) who has never felt at home in his own family. Vince has instead gravitated towards his friend Giaco (Donny Falsetti) and his family, the Paternos, who control pretty much all of Montreal’s criminal underworld. Giaco’s father, Frank (Sergio Castellitto), also happens to be the don. When he takes Vince under his wing as a teenager, he knows that Vince will be the fearless footsoldier his son can’t be.
Things start to get complicated when Vince’s sister Sofie (Mylène Mackay) gets engaged to the other Paterno son, Patrizio (Michael Ricci), just as the Paterno clan is about to funnel all of its money into a toll bridge in Italy. This is a risky and complex operation that will finally launder their fortune and fully legitimize their business. But it’s never more complicated than when Vince orchestrates a deadly, morally bankrupt operation in order to earn his stripes. The success of said operation earns Vince a promotion, but the heinous nature of what exactly that operation entailed causes a rift in the tight-knit fabric of the Paterno crime family that soon explodes into all-out war.
“I remember the period very well,” says Grondin. “I’m from the East End — not Hochelaga, but the easternmost point of Pointe-aux-Trembles. When I was a kid, a prison bus was shot up in my neighbourhood. (Author’s note: this is ultimately what got Maurice “Mom” Boucher jailed.) I remember when the jeep exploded in Hochelaga and that little boy died. There was a social anxiety around that. But I never really interacted with the world of the Italian mafia, from near or far. I went to high school in Rosemont, so I knew many people from Saint-Leonard, people from that community. But it had nothing to do with organized crime, really.
“I had to do a little research, mainly through sitting down with the screenwriter, Sylvain Guy,” Grondin continues. “We looked through archives, pictures, and spoke about who and what had inspired the characters in the movie. Podz and I met some people, we talked to people… but sometimes, it just happens. You meet a friend of a friend, he’s a cop, he’s done some wiretapping… it’s happened that I just go out to get a drink with people and it adds directly to my character!”
For Podz (an avowed Montreal true crime nerd), the appeal of turning the heavily factual, heavily journalistic Mafia Inc. into a film was less about fulfilling mob movie fantasies and more about telling a story that was close to his heart. Nevertheless, the first decision to make was how much reality should be kept in the film and how much should be made up.
“It’s a little touchy, legally speaking,” says Podz. “We had first approached it skewing closer to reality. We brought in a lawyer and the whole thing, but it was pretty tough. It doesn’t really pay off in the end, either. When you fictionalize it, you can speak more freely about what actually happened. Invention allows you to access emotions you couldn’t otherwise. The plan was always to use the book as a springboard. There are things we didn’t use, things we couldn’t use. In the course of research, for example, I came across many conflicting opinions about the bridge stuff. Some of the people I talked to were adamant that it was bullshit the authors made up for the book. Fine, but it worked for us. In the end, we thought it’d be easier for us to evoke reality by fictionalizing it.”
“There’s a movie that I really like called 24 Hour Party People,” says Grondin. “At one point, the character turns to the camera and says, ‘If you ever have to choose between reality and the legend, always choose the legend.’ That’s how I see Mafia Inc. — the 24 Hour Party People of the mafia!”
I bring up the fact that there are, in fact, many Montreal gangland assassinations that are stranger than fiction. I bring up Rocco Violi, who was shot with a single bullet by a sniper while having breakfast with his family in 1983. (It is here that I must admit that I share Podz’s enthusiasm for sordid gangland dealings.)
“Well, that’s exactly it,” says Podz. “With Niccolo Rizzuto, you have the same thing. There’s also a guy who got shot coming out of the movie theatre that he owned, where he was screening The Godfather: Part 2. I mean, if I put that in a movie, no one will believe it!
“I’m of the opinion that we cannot have modern society the way that we currently perceive it without crime,” he continues. “Crime keeps everything rolling. On the other hand, that rolling has consequences with people — with their families, their minds — and that’s really interesting to explore.”
Italian actor-director Sergio Castellitto has worked extensively in his native Italy as well as in France, but he’s never once played a gangster. “Playing the don means participating in a sort of pantheon of actors,” says Castellitto. “It’s like playing Superman. I thought the scenario was interesting. Sure, it was about all of this criminal history, but what really appealed to me was all of the human relationships within that. He’s a father who loves his son — who protects him, who guides him — but who brings another son into his life because he recognizes his intelligence and his ferocity. The crime stuff is just a pretext to talk about things that are always more interesting, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I wanted Sergio exactly for this old-school idea of Italy,” says Podz. “I went to Cotroni for a couple of days to get the vibe, and I got it right away. I needed a king, a patriarch. I needed to get an ‘old world’ quality, if you want to call it that. I had seen Sergio in a couple of things in which he played lighter roles. I thought there was something interesting about him, but there was also this idea that he immediately commanded respect from the Italian-Canadian actors from Montreal who played the other mobsters. They knew he was a big deal. Casting someone they recognized and respected immediately created a hierarchy and a sense of devotion with the other actors.”
The place that mob movies take in the general cinematic landscape is huge. To tackle a mob movie in the wake of The Godfather, Goodfellas or even The Irishman is to take an enormous calculated swing. For film buffs and filmmakers of a certain age, that reality looms large.
“It wasn’t a dream that I had,” says Podz. “I never told myself it’s something I wanted to make in my career. I was way more into horror movies as a kid, honestly. But mob movies and mob stories always interested me, as they do everyone. I wasn’t going to make this movie for any price and I wasn’t going to make any kind of movie. But I had this opportunity and what attracted me to this project was Montreal.
“Montreal is bigger than anything — bigger than New York,” he continues. “There’s something about the old-school ways Sicilian families run their business that was really appealing to me, especially when it clashes with Québécois culture. Sergio’s character understands in the film that that’s the future — that if he wants to continue running his business the way he does, he’s going to have to integrate further and make connections. (…) But it’s Montreal — because it’s about us and because there are so many of these stories — that I wanted to make this film.”
The sentiment is roughly the same for Grondin. To him, it was less about teenage fantasies of mob movies and more about the character he was asked to play.
“I never personally wanted to make a mafia movie,” says Grondin. “My whole thing was I wanted to be a cop in 19-2! (laughs) I wanted to play a cowboy and things like that. What I liked about this was that Podz thinks about me for roles that I wouldn’t necessarily be considered for otherwise. In normal life, regardless of whether I speak Italian, they would’ve cast me to play the role of Giaco. Things happen around Giaco, but not necessarily to him. He’s very inwards. Podz offered me the active character. It’s rare that I get characters who start things, who get stuff going and who are extroverted. That’s what interested me, beyond the fact that this was a Mafia movie. It was a door that I hadn’t opened yet. Every time I work with Podz, I feel like he opens doors for me.” ■
Mafia Inc. opens in Montreal theatres Friday, Feb. 14. Watch the trailer below.
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