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Europe Monday, 22 February, 1999, 18:46 GMT
School's out in Sicily
The bustle of Palermo's Ballaro market masks real poverty in Sicilian society
In this edition of Crossing Continents, Meriel Beattie reports from Sicily on the beginnings of a grassroots revolution against the Mafia.

Listen to the programme in full

Sicily is far from being just another region of Italy: it has a very distinctive heritage, dialect and feel. Sicilians are proud to be different - tellingly, even today they refer to mainland Italy as "the Continent". There's an enduring sense that what works well for the rest of Italy might not be possible - or even acceptable - here.

Children are still working full-time in small businesses across Sicily
For generations it's been normal for poor families in Sicily to send their children out to work - as young as eight years old. This is illegal, but somehow the problem never disappears - despite protests by priests and teachers concerned about the future of children whose education has stopped almost before it began. Child labourers often turn out to be easy targets for recruitment to crime. It's all part of the pattern of poverty and delinquency which has enabled the Mafia to flourish. But now something is changing in Sicily.

Meriel Beattie discovers that by tacking the issue of child labour, Sicilians are finding a new approach - and new courage - to deal with other social problems.

Sicily's rich land made its rulers wealthy - but in the cities life is still a struggle
The campaign against child labour is only one aspect of a wider effort to reform and revitalise Sicily. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, is an energetic and charismatic figure who's worked wonders in the city. Because of his outspoken defiance of the Mafia, he's become a symbol of hope for many Palermitans. And he's not shy of taking credit, insisting that it's thanks to his efforts at promoting culture and education that the city is enjoying a social and moral renaissance. Just in the last year the celebrities who've been through Palermo include Philip Glass, Pina Bausch and Claudio Abbado.

Even the most enduring and powerful phenomena of Sicilian life are now being questioned. The Mafia may never have been as prevalent - or as sophisticated - as Hollywood stereotypes about Sicily suggest, but there's no doubt that in earlier decades they had at least an image of invulnerability. Now that image is cracking - not least because of Roberta Torre. A young film director, originally from Milan, she's made a film with a unique approach - the first musical comedy about the Mafia.

She filmed one of Italy's most successful movies of 1998, "Tano da Morire", in Palermo. The movie was shown at the last Edinburgh Fringe Festival on August 1998 and enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. "Tano to Die For" was shot in Sicily with non-professional actors (people from every walk of life: bakers, nurses, teachers, hairdressers, housewives) and is a strange, weird, musical on the Mafia subculture.

Palermo too has its 'no-go' areas
It was filmed in one of Palermo's most notoriously mob-infested neighborhoods, featuring characters literally drawn from the street. With its sing-along tunes ("We are the Mafia" is one, sung in Sicilian dialect), nutty dance numbers (featuring Mafiosi waving dead chickens) and chorus of overweight Mafia women complaining about their overbearing men, "Tano to Die For" is an often surreal film which doesn't just challenge cliches about Sicily's Mafia culture, it ridicules them.

Roberta Torre is now a Palermitan heroine, and shooting her new movie in the city. Crossing Continents meets and talks to her on the set.

Stallholder's cries and conversation, Palermo
of Palermo's Ballaro market
'Tano's Rap', from the film by Roberta Torre
from the surprise Sicilian hit film, 'Tano da Morire'
Roberta Torre on set, Palermo, Oct 98
"the Mafia are not like Marlon Brando..."
See also:

11 Nov 98 | Europe
11 Mar 98 | Despatches
03 Mar 98 | Europe
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