Thanks to specialty DVD companies like NoShame and Blue Underground, American genre buffs have been able to catch up with the massive backlog of crime thrillers produced in Italy in the '70s, though we don't always get the historical context for their tales of corruption and conspiracy. Throughout the '70s, the mafia—which for centuries had largely been confined to rural areas—migrated to the cities with the tacit blessing of the government, and mob families began carrying ancient vendettas into the streets, with collateral civilian damage. By the '80s, any lingering sense of old-world charm associated with "the mafia way" had been replaced by a pervasive sense of powerlessness among the Italian citizenry, and when crusading prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were brazenly assassinated in 1992, the streets erupted with protests by people demanding that the government end its shadow association with known criminals.

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In 1996, investigative journalist Alexander Stille wrote a book about the Falcone/Borsellino incident, Excellent Cadavers; it was made into a stiff HBO movie in 1999, and now into an informative but dry BBC documentary. Marco Turco's Excellent Cadavers features dramatic footage of mafia trials with masked witnesses and bulletproof witness boxes, and the film is littered with the bloody crime-scene snaps of Letizia Battaglia, who specialized in photographing severed heads and bullet-riddled corpses. Turco even has Stille narrating the story and interviewing some of the key players in person. But in spite of all that—and in spite of the artfully lit interviews and energetic musical score—the documentary resolves into an accumulation of names, dates, and mundane procedural detail. The sympathy is missing.

And not just sympathy for the Italian people, whose complaints about street thugs and crooked business deals fell on deaf ears for decades. It's also missing sympathy for the crooks, who were set loose in local governments by Cold Warriors who knew they'd be hard on communism. Excellent Cadavers features a little history, but not enough to get at all the ironies of a post-fascist nation gradually being taken over by thugs, often with the citizenry's unwitting approval. Stille and Turco reach the real point late, when they delve into the corruption charges against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who spent much of his recent term dismantling the witness-protection program and weakening the judiciary. Berlusconi once won votes with lines like, "To be a magistrate, one must be mentally disturbed." How far is that from certain rule-dodging American politicians, who rail opportunistically against the scourge of "activist judges"?

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