Opening with its hero’s dramatic death on the highway, Excellent Cadavers is seldom at a loss for excitement. Featuring countless murders, tales of bodies bathed in acid, and at least one shot of a severed head, Marco Turco’s lively documentary retraces 30 years of mob action and government reaction in Sicily. We pick up the story in the mid 1970s, when a new generation of Cosa Nostra bosses brought the organization out of the hinterlands and into Palermo, turning the city into a shooting range that by 1982 saw an average of one mob killing every three days. Most of Excellent Cadavers is devoted to the work of the courageous duo of Giovanni Falcone (victim of the opening car bomb) and fellow prosecutor Paolo Borsellino (himself assassinated just weeks later), which achieved its greatest triumph with a mid-’80s trial that produced more than 300 convictions, amid mind-boggling security precautions.
Based on a book of the same title by American journalist and Columbia professor Alexander Stille, Excellent Cadavers subtly turns in on its origins. Turco’s camera follows Stille on a summer 2004 trip to Italy, where he revisits key locations and talks to eyewitnesses, essentially reconstructing the research that led to his book. Stille is accompanied by veteran Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, whose haunting photos, along with contemporary interviews and archival news footage, make up a multimedia mosaic of the recent past—even if the overall effect is less one of rigorous historical engagement than of a filmmaker pulling out all the stops. Stille’s early voiceover musing that Sicily is the key to understanding Italy becomes a bit more concrete as the movie delves into the Mafia’s history of political entanglements, from its Cold War enlistment in the struggle against Communism to the scandal-tainted administration of recently departed prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The details may remain a bit sketchy for viewers unfamiliar with the miasma of Italian politics, but Berlusconi’s anti-judicial rhetoric, which could have been copped from a Tom DeLay rant against activist judges, should provide an equal-opportunity shudder.