Mamma Mafia Drags Two Great Actresses Down


This very writer firmly believes there is an invisible gulf between a movie premise and the completed execution of said premise. Plenty of ideas sound sparkling written on cocktail napkins or even fleshed out to a full-fledged script. But then, the cameras roll and the completed reels have to get edited together into something coherent to honor the initial concept. That’s when realization hits on whether a good idea became a good movie and how far those successes are apart. Mamma Mafia is a perfect case to measure such a divide.

On paper, Mamma Mafia has a semi-accidental fish-out-of-water concept that will elicit grins. The movie takes a high-strung middle-aged American woman played by an enchanting actress in Toni Collette, whisks her away to luscious Italy, and then throws her in the deep end of a blood feud between crime families. Imagining all the bewildering pratfalls and sending a likable character through them is precisely the exercise of Mamma Mafia from Thirteen and Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. There’s room for some laughs to be had.

A woman is scared talking on a cell phone and puts her hand on her chest.
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Because the concept is inexplicable from the get-go, a movie like Mamma Mafia has two routes to pull the whole thing off. Play it hard and show the perceived violent world that exists or lean on the inexplicable and ham it up. The screenplay from Kevin from Work TV writers J. Michael Feldman and Debbie Jhoon– based on an original story from Madame’s Amanda Sthers– tries both and the results are messier than the botched murders in the movie itself.

When a clash between the Romano and Balbano clans leaves the Balbano capomandamento Guiseppe (Alessandro Bressanello) dead, the family’s consigliere Bianca (the always-exquisite Monica Bellucci) must rally the survivors and pick up the pieces of the family business. Guiseppe’s final will calls for Bianca to dig down into the roots of the Balbano family tree for a direct descendent. She finds Guiseppe’s granddaughter Kristin (Collette) who immigrated to America with her parents when she was a baby. 

Two women stand in tubs mashing grapes in Mamma Mafia
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

The frazzled woman Bianca finds is spiraling. Caught in a thankless marketing job at a toxic boy’s club workplace, Kristin has recently sent her only son off to college and caught her husband cheating. A trip to Italy falling into the lap of a woman who self-admittedly masturbates to Stanley Tucci: Searching Italy couldn’t have come at a better time. Encouraged by her kickboxing classmate and friend Jenny (Sophia Nomvete of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power), Kristin’s liberating goal with this vacation is “Eat Pray F–k”.

Jumping on those three activities would have made Mamma Mafia a good bit of fun. In place of that, we get a cycle of “Fluster Murder Fail”. Sure, there are a few yummy dishes inside and outside of the kitchen for Kristin– namely the handsome driver Lorenzo (Guilio Corso) and the studly Romano boss Carlo (Guiseppe Zeno). However, as soon as Kristin arrives, puts on those makeover pumps to play the new part, and the bullets start to fly, that mantra goes out the window like a body thrown to its death. 

A woman checks on her phone next to her workout classmate.
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Apparently, Hollywood still enjoys low-hanging fruit off of a repetitive grove of trees. After a half-century of The Godfather jokes and 16 years after the completion of The Sopranos, we are still here trying to squeeze ethnic lemons into lemonade by still doing mob and Italian stereotypes in 2023. Easy targets make easy jokes. On second thought, the better goal for Feldman and Jhoon would have been adding alcoholic character and more contemplative steeping time to turn Italian lemons into limoncello. That’s the good stuff higher than something sugary stirred into a pitcher and sold on street corners in ramshackle stands.

Once again, Mamma Mafia’s simplest idea of a foreigner thrust into a position of importance could make a funny enough movie. Among those stereotypes, there are two non-stoogish bodyguards for Kristin shown prominently on the film’s poster and played by Francesco Mastroianni (Milano Calibro 9) and Alfonso Perugini (Enigma Finale) respectively. They spin gold and make the most of their physical comedy chances of providing presence and deadpan reactions against the exasperated Collette. Mamma Mafia could have taken a Guarding Tess route and stayed on that type of path of humorous acclimation and gradual indoctrination. 

A woman in blacks looks over in front of her bodyguard.
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Unfortunately, the wit of Mamma Mafia is dimmer than the black of everyone’s chosen wardrobe. The movie moves from one ridiculous and explicit attempted murder, coupled with a shouting match, to another and another. While the destiny-heavy arc of ascension to a confidence-building throne is the predictable goal, a character built like Kristin would have never made it out of the first scrum alive. It is very difficult to buy or go along with the lack of panic and complete ditziness for her, or anyone else, not seeing the obvious dangers. Women are smarter than that, and the movie should have been as well.

Two women in black coats talk in a street in Mamma Mafia
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

In doing so, Mamma Mafia wastes two of the best female actors of their generation. Monica Bellucci can still stop cinematic traffic and carries the power to make Mamma Mafia more imposing than it turned out to be. Let her commitment make the movie strong too. Likewise, Toni Collette has been on a hot streak of challenging films for the past decade. It’s hard to blame her for wanting to de-stress and have fun on a comedy, but, gosh, this was a rough choice. 

You have one Oscar nominee’s wide eyes and broad smile radiating enormous dither and blather. You have an eternal sex symbol giving allure to everything she joins. Use that combined power for something more substantial than battiness. Instead, we’re going to do to Mamma Mafia what the rival families do when they hear the other’s name. We’re going to turn our heads and spit on the ground.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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