Rebel with a Cause The real-life story of an anti-Mafia activist in Sicily makes for a handsome film with a political message

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Mafia bosses tend not to talk a lot, and that's too bad, because Tano Badalamenti would probably have something to say about I Cento Passi (The Hundred Steps). The film's title marks the distance separating Badalamenti's home from that of the story's hero, Peppino Impastato, played by Luigi Lo Cascio, in Cinisi, a small town outside Palermo. In fact, Cosa Nostra was much nearer than 100 steps, as Peppino's father was a close friend of Badalamenti, the local boss. The film is more than one man's crusade against the Mafia; Peppino's first battle is in his own home. That makes his struggle with the culture of omertÓ, the wall of silence that allowed the Mafia to prevail for decades, all the more poignant.

Situated in Sicily in the late '60s and '70s, Marco Tullio Giordana's film follows the true story of an impetuous young man, as Peppino questions authority at all levels. While students in Rome and Milan-as well as Paris and Berkeley-battle the police, Peppino and his comrades are fewer and tamer, and with reason. As Peppino learns by the time he is seven, the Mafia uses bombs and bullets, not riot batons, to bring its enemies into line.

Peppino has weapons of his own-the media. He is particularly effective with a tiny newspaper that he starts with a friend. The headline of the first issue, "The Mafia's a Mountain of Crap," forces his mother to buy up all the copies. But she can't do anything to silence his makeshift broadcasting operation called Radio Aut, in which the town of Cinisi becomes "Mafiopoli." Boss Badalamenti is a frequent listener.

Ultimately Peppino gains his mother's support. That's significant, since "Mafia women" have nurtured organized crime's stranglehold on the island. Peppino also manages to bring his brother over to his side: in one dramatic sequence the younger sibling walks the 100 steps to Badalamenti's house and shouts at the top of his lungs against Mafia control.

Sicilians have praised the film's realistic treatment of life in a small town ruled by one man. The cinematography plays effectively on Italy's sharp contrasts-the men dressed rigorously in white shirts, the women in widow's black-and the '70s pop and rock soundtrack is a pleasant departure from the melancholic folk music common in films like this. Luigi Maria Burruano is especially convincing as Peppino's father, who can't figure out where he went wrong in raising his rebellious son. Only one scene gives away the film's low budget ($2.3 million): when Impastato padre tries to fob off his son on wealthy relatives in New York, one sees only the inside of a cab and a generic living room. Otherwise, The Hundred Steps is a model of realism.

Giordana's movie, which won a Golden Lion in Venice, was also nominated for a Golden Globe award. But the choice was controversial. Peppino Impastato was a member of the once-powerful Italian Communist Party, then broke with it to go further left, to the Proletarian Democracy. Critics complain that the movie is more a political apology than an anti-Mafia story. "It's a nice film artistically, but it supports a thesis that's completely false, that the left has always fought the Mafia in Sicily," says Enzo FragalÓ, a deputy in the right-wing National Alliance party. "The left did business with the Mafia, and a lot of business."

But many Italians, including Sicilians, find the film an accurate portrayal of the period and of Peppino's struggle. Rita Borsellino, whose brother Paolo, a Palermo judge, was killed by a Mafia car bomb in 1992, believes the message-finding the courage to break with Mafia culture-is especially effective for young people. "It's a story that goes right to the point," she says.

The Hundred Steps is a Sicilian tragedy, and you know it's going to end badly. Peppino Impastato was killed one night in May 1978, during his campaign for the Cinisi town council. He was elected anyway. Investigators at first reported that he died in a botched terrorist attack that he had planned, but the case was later reopened. In 1996, police determined that Peppino had been killed by Cosa Nostra. The following year, Badalamenti was charged with ordering the hit. He's now awaiting trial in Palermo.