Corleone puts Mafia reputation to good use

Old men, their grey hair hidden by Sicily’s traditional coppola caps, chat idly one Friday morning in the cobbled square that hosts Corleone’s main church.

Nearby, the Ruggirello brothers smile as they serve their customers pitch black espressos in small coffee cups from behind the counter of the Central Bar. The walls are plastered with posters of Marlon Brando, its shelves lined with bottles of Vino del Padrino—“The Godfather’s wine”.

This apparently tranquil hilltop town, population 11 000, is inextricably linked with the Mafia, particularly since Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 movie became a blockbuster worldwide.

But while it would be quite wrong to describe Corleone as the capital of Sicily’s infamous organised crime network, it was not by chance that it was picked by Godfather author Mario Puzo as the birthplace of Don Vito.

It was here, for instance, that one of the island’s first trade union leaders, Placido Rizzotto, was shot dead at point-blank range in 1948.

It was also from here that Corleone-born boss Toto’ Riina orchestrated his bloody wars on rival gangs and then on the Italian state during the 1980s and 1990s.

And it is probably somewhere between here and nearby Palermo, Sicily’s political capital, that Bernardo Provenzano, the Mafia’s current boss-of-bosses and a fugitive since the 1960s, imparts his orders to the rest of the network.

Yet, while the town fights on and its youths dreams of a future without the Mafia, some Corleonesi are beginning to latch onto the possibility that they could put their town’s ill fame to good use.

The Ruggirellos’ Brando-branded white wine, for instance, is just one of the many visible consequences born from the town’s nascent tourism industry.

“We rarely had foreigners come here. But in recent years we have seen plenty of Americans, European, even Japanese,” says Enza Tortorici of the mayor’s office.

As she speaks, a young couple from Scandinavia walk along one of the town’s narrow and steep streets before stopping to look at Chiesa Madre, whose belltower features in a famous scene in The Godfather.

“When we first came here, we were so afraid that we took turns to sleep in our camper,” Connie Hyttel of Denmark says with a smile.

Like Connie, more and more thrill-seeking tourists are asking their travel agents to include Corleone in their Sicilian itineraries.

“Most of them want to see the home of mobsters like Riina [now in solitary confinment in a prison on the Italian mainland],” says Tortorici.

But when they actually get here, it is the lesser-known aspects of the town that surprise them.

“We have found that the people of Corleone are generous, friendly and hospitable.
The nicest in the world,” says Connie.

In truth, many Corleonesi find the idea of exploiting the Mafia connection as a tourist attraction difficult to digest. One group of residents, for instance, has even gone as far as suggesting changing the town’s name.

And town mayor Nicolo’ Nicolosi insists that Corleone has a lot more to offer visitors than the images of bullet-ridden bodies or severed horse’s heads.

“Not a single shot has been fired here for 12 years, and I do believe that the Mafia is finally on the retreat,” he notes.

While acknowledging that Cosa Nostra is still a problem, Nicolosi wants people to focus more on this charming town’s positive aspects.

“So far, we have been known around the world for some unpleasant things. From now on we want to be known for the good things,” he says.

These include a small archeological museum and the town’s main church, Chiesa Madre, which hosts a number of paintings dating back 400 and 500 years.

Another local attraction, a documentation centre incorrectly described by the media as a “Mafia museum”, could easily be given a miss as it merely hosts judicial documents and a few photographs.

But visitors will not be disappointed by the local cuisine, genuine, healthy and delicious; the refreshment from the summer heat provided by the nearby woods; or the beauty of the surrounding scenery, in which multicoloured fields meet still white mountains to paint a panorama as dramatic as the town’s history.

And while tourism may be booming, a new hotel is currently under construction near the town centre, the locals are exploiting the Mafia connection to their own benefit in other ways.

A local cooperative, for instance, uses confiscated Mafia land to produce pasta, olive oil and wine, which is then sold in supermarkets across Italy.

In doing so, the Placido Rizzotto cooperative, named after the town’s slain trade unionist, also provides jobs to the mentally and physically handicapped.

Gianluca Faraone, one of a group of youths who founded the cooperative in 2001, says that despite being the target of a number of acts of intimidation—unknowns burnt down one of their fields and stole a tractor—it is vital that the cooperative should continue to exist.

“This project won’t solve all of the problems, but it can still provide small but significant help,” he says.

Next spring, Faraone and his partners plan to inaugurate a nearby bed and breakfast, “Portella della Ginestra”, in a farm that once belonged to the infamous Bruscas—two brothers who strangled and then dissolved in acid the 11-year-old son of a Mafia turncoat. - Sapa-DPA

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