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Italy: Taking on The Mafia

Interview with Roberto Saviano

The cunto, a traditional form of Italian street storytelling, has been at the heart of Sicilian life for centuries. Now, a young actor is breathing new life into this dying art to tell the stories of his generation. FRONTLINE/World reporter Carola Mamberto writes about her discovery of the modern cunto through Palermitan actor Salvatore Piparo.

I met Salvatore Piparo on my first reporting trip to Palermo, through the chirpy owner of a snug 30-seat theater buried in the narrow streets of the city's ancient Kalsa neighborhood. Once the barn of an 18th-century palazzo, the Teatrino Ditirammu is one of Palermo's best-kept secrets -- a cozy family-run playhouse with wooden benches and frescoed walls that's become a hub for actors and musicians devoted to keeping Sicily’s traditional arts alive.

When I told Vito, the theater's owner, why I had come to Palermo -- to report on the Mafia's grip on the city -- he suggested I meet Salvatore Piparo, known as “Salvo,” a young actor who had been writing plays about Cosa Nostra’s hold. "He's unlike anything you have ever seen," Vito assured me, pouring yet another round of thick, homemade nocino liqueur in my shot glass. "He's a pure force of nature. He will blow you away.”

The next Sunday, I returned to the Teatrino with great anticipation to meet Salvo. Having grown up in Italy, I had read about and marveled at Sicily's rich theater tradition -- from the famous puppet shows, dating back to the Normans, to modern dramatists like Leonardo Sciascia and Luigi Pirandello.

As a reporter, I was curious to see how something as ingrained and impalpable as the Mafia -- an all-too-familiar presence in Sicily but one that most Sicilians won’t openly acknowledge -- was being represented, if at all, on Palermo’s stages. Not necessarily in fancy theaters but deep inside the centro storico -- the city’s vociferous old town, where the smells and sights are still those of a lively, somewhat tattered 18th-century seaside village, and people speak in rapid Sicilianu, a vigorous dialect so local that most Italians don’t understand a word of it.

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With his curly, untamed hair, pointy nose and jolly eyes, Palermitan actor Salvatore Piparo looked like a character straight out of a Medieval commedia.

When Salvo showed up at the Teatrino that Sunday, I was immediately struck by his voice. It was imposing but melodious, with a thick, cheerful Sicilian accent that quickly filled the empty theater. He greeted me warmly, his arms moving wildly with enthusiasm. I couldn’t help but smile. With his curly, untamed hair, pointy nose and jolly eyes, he looked like a character straight out of a Medieval commedia.

Before that afternoon, I had known very little about the cunto, an ancient form of improvisational storytelling that thrived in Palermo over the centuries but is now almost extinguished. Piparo, who's been practicing it professionally since 2005, calls it a “revelation,” something "so passionate and instinctive that you can't learn it in a school."

Performed by cuntisti standing atop wooden platforms, using nothing more than the power of their booming voices and a single prop -- usually a wooden sword or cane --these stories lasted for hours on end. They were epic tales that drove audiences to hysterics. Performers were sometimes forced to modify their stories on the fly to please angry or weeping crowds.

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Traditionally, the cunti revolved around Medieval heroes, such as knights and paladins, and their epic adventures.

To heighten the drama, the cuntisti relied on their lungs. "It all comes down to breathing," says Piparo. "The cuntista uses a specific breathing technique to pace his story, to add syncopation to it, building up the drama.” It’s so spontaneous, Piparo adds eagerly, his voice suddenly ramping up three tones, that “when you close your eyes, you see the whole story in front of you … and the more you see it, the faster you breathe, the more it picks up pace.”

Based on an ancient Greek form of chorus called the dythiramb -- which experts say laid the foundation for Greek tragedy, and thus for modern theater -- the cunto is believed to date as far back as the Middle Ages. A typically Palermitan form of storytelling, it gained momentum in the 19th century and carried through into modern times, until movie theaters and TV sets put many cuntisti out of business.

"Before television, the whole city of Palermo was packed with cuntisti," Piparo says. "People would gather around the storytellers to hear their dramatic tales. It was one of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time.”

Traditionally, the cunti revolved around Medieval heroes, such as knights and paladins, and their epic adventures -- with the final battle being the peak of the performance. But Piparo decided to add his own twist, using these traditional methods to tell contemporary tales about the challenges facing the new generation of Palermitans: the Mafia, the city’s decline, the lack of opportunities for young Sicilians.

Piparo’s heroes are those trying to “save the city from decay,” as he puts it. “I still observe all the rules of the cunto, which is told strictly in Sicilian dialect, but I try to adapt this very rich and emotional form of storytelling to the issues of our times,” he says.

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Piparo’s heroes are those trying to “save the city from decay".

In Don Pinuzzo, for example, Piparo revisits the story of Don Pino Puglisi, a Palermo priest who spent his life trying to shelter teens from Mafia recruiters and forced labor. Puglisi was killed by the mob in 1993, leaving a deep void among Palermitans. In Don Pinuzzo, the priest becomes an epic hero battling the monstrous “plague coming from the sea” -- the Mafia.

In another of his improvisations, Pupari e Pupiddi (“Puppet Masters and Little Puppets”), Piparo tells the story of Vincenzo Conticello, a restaurant owner who took an unprecedented stand against the Mafia in 2007 by fingering one of his extortionists in court. Conticello would later become the main character in my FRONTLINE/World story "Taking on the Mafia."

This time, Piparo turns directly to his audience: “You, and you, and you … do you think you’re a master puppeteer? A god? We’re all just little puppets, weak little puppets,” he cries out -- his every word delivered with the weight of the world behind it, each syllable accentuated with epic overtones.

Piparo, now 30, first learned about the cunto from his grandfather, who would often mention Roberto Genovese, one of Palermo’s last two authentic cuntisti in the ’50s and ’60s. "I remember [my grandfather] telling me about this tiny man who, in the middle of the hot summer, wearing a bare white shirt and wooden sword, would tell cunti for hours and hours,” Piparo recalls. “I was totally fascinated.”

It wasn't until much later in his life that Piparo was able to revisit this art. In his mid-20s, he left Sicily -- a Mafia-dominated region with some of Europe's highest unemployment rates -- to find work in Milan, in Northern Italy. But he soon felt “a strange emptiness inside,” he recalls. "I missed everything of Sicily: the streets, the colors, the people.”

In 2004, after months of job hunting, Piparo finally landed a job in Palermo as a train controller and was able to move back. “The nostalgia I had felt all along convinced me that I wanted to tell the stories of my city, of my terra. I felt that the cunto was a perfect way not only to tell these stories but to tell them in a form that belongs to us, that is part of our heritage and that we should be proud of.”

Piparo hopes to attract younger generations to his art, which only a select few still practice today in Palermo. “The word ‘Palermo’ itself comes from the Greek Panormus, which means ‘open port,’” he says. “But today our city is a trapped city, suffocated by the Mafia. I want everybody to rediscover the true character of Palermo and its people.”