Movie reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Mac (1992) ***

Directed by John Turturro. Written by Turturro and Brandon Cole. Photography, Ron Fortunato. Production design, Robin Standefer. Editing, Michael Berenbaum. Music, Richard Termini, Vin Tese. Cast: John Turturro, Michael Badalucco, Carl Capotorto, Katherine Borowitz, Ellen Barkin, Olek Krupa, John Amos, et al. A Samuel Goldwyn release. 118 minutes. R (language).

Filial love, autobiography, pride in craftsmanship, family relations, labor ethics and changing times coalesce in "Mac, " the first feature directed by John Turturro.

As an actor Turturro made his mark in several films, notably in three by Spike Lee and two by the Coen brothers. His major breakthrough came in the latter's "Barton Fink, " for which he received the Best Actor Award at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. The following year, also at Cannes, Turturro won the Camera d'Or (Golden Camera) prize for "Mac", as best first film.

"Mac" is inspired by the life and the values of Turturro's own father, a first generation Italian immigrant who was a carpenter before he became a contractor, and with whom John worked on summers and vacations.

The film had been Turturro's project since 1980. The movie script evolved into a play (co-written with playwright Brandon Cole) of which many scenes were staged by Turturro in various small New York theaters. But no film producer could be found until Nancy Tenenbaum ("sex, lies and videotape"), who had turned down the project several times, met with Turturro and, impressed, not only took over the production, but talked him into directing the movie.

"Mac" opens in Queens, at the wake for Papa Vitelli in 1954 (Turturro's father actually died in 1988), who leaves three sons, Mac (Turturro) the oldest, Vico (Badalucco), and Bruno (Capotorto) the junior.

Of the three, Mac is like a reincarnation of the old man, and inherits from him the principle that "There's only two ways of doing things. The right way and my way. And they're both the same. " The principle involves uncompromising standards of workmanship that, in Mac's case, turn into a veritable obsession.

The brothers go to work for contractor Olek Krupa who practices shortcuts -- beams spaced too far apart, fewer nails used, and the like. Mac's brothers, though disapproving, accept the status quo, especially as they have other fish to fry: Vico is a girl-chaser and Bruno an aspiring artist as well as a ladies' man.

Mac however eventually rebels (quite violently) and like his Papa and Turturro's own goes from carpenter to independent contractor, with his brothers. The film follows the work and travails of the outfit in the style of "verismo, " roughly the Italian term for naturalism, which in the 1940s led to the neo-realism of Italian cinema and in turn influenced Italian-American directors like Scorsese or Coppola.

Unadorned reality permeates the film. The price of this authenticity is that the characters are not fabricated, hence are not particularly interesting. But this is made up by the suspense inherent in the building trade, with the menace of financial debacles, physical dangers, graft and abuses. There are major accidents and lesser irritations, like a worker named Joey who is a real Sloppy Joe but is protected by his Union representative.

The culmination of Mac's idealistic tunnel-vision is the building of four finely-honed houses. The tragedy is that they won't sell, for reasons explained in the movie.

More than his brothers, it is Mac's girl, later his wife Alice (Katherine Borowitz, Turturro's wife in real life) who counsels and encourages him, shows good sense and genuine flair for business deals. I cannot tell whether this character is invented or, like much in the movie, comes from models. But strong Alice is a refreshing change from the submissive movie spouses of Italo-Americans, before and after the 1950s.

To his credit, Turturro does not overplay his ethnic hand. The Sicilian-American atmosphere is inescapable, with macho boys, heavy accents, underlit, furniture-choked interiors. But colorfulness per se is avoided: no pasta, no cutesy sentiments, no shouts (except for the unseen, probably senile mama who screeches from her room), no family feuds, no Mafiosi.

At the same time, the predominantly Italianate teams of workers include other races and ethnicities. Characteristics are kept, the melting pot is more of a mixing pot, and there is often a true feeling of proletarian solidarity.

As the Vitelli Bros. business develops in lurching fashion, comes dangerously close to bankruptcy and then bounces back modestly. Mac's perfectionism gradually alienates his brothers. They finally quit the partnership and the Old World standards, while joining, so to speak, the post-war half of the century, a time of sellers rather than builders. The disgusted Mac sums up the1950s boom while unwittingly prophesizing the excesses of the 1980s : "There are men who can do, and men who can talk. "

I wonder whether or not Turturro has been remotely affected by films like "On the Waterfront" of 1954, the year when "Mac" begins, or better still, Italian movies like Francesco Rosi's classic exposť of crooked real-estate developers, "Hands Over the City" (1963), with Rod Steiger.

Yet no matter what the influences "Mac" is not derivative. Throughout, it remains an actor's movie, with a stress (sometimes an over-stress) of closeups of faces, something that might also be called a TV technique, yet a system that great filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman can render totally cinematic.

Initially rather slow, the tempo later picks up, notably when Mac passionately and heedlessly overbids against his former employer; when at last virtue is rewarded by the sale of all four houses; or when, in a scene of near-Shakespearean pathos, the other brothers go their own way.

Also to Turturro's credit, the picture, unlike Mac's building, does not attempt to be a "well-made" film with all the rough spots sanded down, all characters explained, problems solved, and questions answered.

The driven Mac, undoubtedly a pain to live with, is not particularly appealing. But the message is. As Turturro said in a 1992 interview: " This is a very American film, very large in spirit, that says: to build something means something -- and that the most important thing a person can do is leave a mark on the world in a simple but significant way. "

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie reviews by Edwin Jahiel