Walter Presents TV review: Mafiosa Season 1
James R | On 02, May 2016
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“You’re not lacking in guts. Certainly not lacking in skill.” That’s how someone describes Sandra Paoli (Hélène Fillières) in Mafiosa, a new crime saga available on All 4’s Walter Presents. The series, which follows Sandra’s rise to power within the Paoli clan, first aired back in 2006 in its home country of France. It’s taken 10 years to arrive in the UK – and it’s more than worth than wait.
Gangster dramas are nothing new on our screens, of course, even from the perspective of the bad guys – The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and their ilk are now a familiar presence in modern TV. Mafiosa, however, has one thing in its advantage: its antihero is a woman. That alone is enough to make the show stand out from the crowd, but it’s just as much a surprise to everyone on-screen: when Sandra’s uncle, Francois, is killed at the start of the programme, nobody expects his will to name her as his heir. She’s a lawyer, ambitious but just – hardly the kind of person you want heading up the local crime syndicate. But name her it does, and she finds herself having to decide whether to shoulder the Paoli burden or not.
The fact that she says yes gives you a clue where the show is headed – one long, drawn-out downfall. But Sandra Paoli gives Walter White a good run for his money, proving both engaging, sympathetic and scary in equal measure.
Writers Stéphanie Benson and Hugues Pagan slowly navigate her moral descent – and her underworld ascent – with gripping precision. Every episode of the eight-part first season sees the family face a threat, be it an attack on their distillery, a shipment of illegal weapons placed in jeopardy or merely the cops breathing down their necks. Each one forces Sandra to make a tough call to strengthen their position and reinforce their authority; step by step, she is pushed further into the ethical quagmire we all know awaits. The motive, though, for each decision is almost always ambiguous; some might be revenge for Francois’ murder, while others could be to protect loved ones or innocents. There’s never a clear-cut, black-and-white division between the right thing and the wrong thing. Episode 3, for example, sees Sandra stand up to her own clan to protect a young girl who has fallen victim to prostitution and trafficking – the kind of well-intentioned stance that puts us firmly on her side of the fence. The sheer brutality of the violence that’s committed against them (one boxer’s execution is splatteringly graphic) also gives credence to her retaliatory actions.
It’s nothing compared to what she can do, though: Sandra is as slippery a customer as they come, as capable of standing up to bullies as bullying others herself. Hélène Fillières is something of a revelation in the lead. She appeared in 2007’s French adaptation of Lady Chatterley, but is otherwise unknown in this country – something that’s hard to believe, given her work here. She’s a smart, sexy, chameleonic screen presence, switching from earnest court fighter to angry crime enforcer repeatedly, as the chapters fly past; she’s naive one minute, devilishly sweet-talking police commissioner Rocca (the steely Patrick Dell’Isola) the next. And along the way, she seduces anyone she needs to.
But there’s more to her than a pair of legs and a gun, as her chemistry with her uncle (seen in flashbacks) and his father, Ange (Claude Faraldo, having a whale of a time as the Godfather-like veteran of the family), brings out her vulnerable, compassionate side. Even when she’s following in her uncle’s footsteps in the nastiest possible way, there’s always a sense that she’s partly doing so out of affection for him – their relationship is more father and daughter than niece and uncle.
The entire supporting cast is just as well fleshed-out, from corrupt councillor Zamponi to Rémi Martin as ambiguous bodyguard Santoni, to whom there’s more than meets the eye. Even Sandra’s brains-versus-braun bond with her brother, Jean-Michel (a believably bitter but loyal Thierry Neuvic), comes with a debt-laden wife and feisty daughter (Carmen – Phareelle Onoyan) to boot.
Together, the ensemble craft a tale with enough substance to sell any plot or tone they wish – one sequence where Carmen is kidnapped confidently moves from hand-in-mouth tension to laugh-out-loud comedy without ever feeling forced.
While traps are set and elections are rigged, there are still moments for pathos and nuance (“In a way, it was comforting they were still voting…” says one relative of a dead person whose name was used to vote illegally). Politics comes to the fore as the season progresses, and Sandra’s legal connections become increasingly valuable – just as witnesses, once a prized treasure of her occupation, become shockingly expendable. Fillières is right at the heart of that hard-to-pin-down mood: she’s thrillingly unpredictable throughout, smiling for the cameras before turning away from the bright lights to show her private reaction, sabotaging heists just to prove a point, and even willing to take a bullet if it means getting the upper hand. By the end, her smiles are more snake-like than sincere, as she moves closer to finding out who was responsible for Francois’ death.
Director Louis Choquette presents it all with a fitting level of gloss and gore, capturing the glamour of Sandra’s ascent and the grittiness of her descent. Episodes often open with stunning aerial shots that sweep into the action, framing the story within its vibrant Corsican setting. Each one closes, moreover, with a montage of faces looking straight down the lens – An accusatory stare from the dead? A suspicious glance from the living? – that reinforces Sandra’s internal conflict in striking style. The result is a superb series that is never lacking in guts, skill or anything else.
All eight episodes of Mafiosa Season 1 are available to stream on All 4’s Walter Presents.
For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV guide.